Glimmering Girls: A Novel of the Fifties
by Merrill Joan Gerber
Published by University of Wisconsin Press
249 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Mary Ward Menke
Today's college students, with their co-ed dorms and gender-equal instruction, may well consider the education culture experienced by their parents and grandparents as ancient history. For those who came of age in the middle of the last century, however, a discussion of that period is like looking in the rearview mirror at a place you're happy you'll never see again.
Merrill Joan Gerber's latest novel, Glimmering Girls: A Novel of the Fifties, explores college life in the late 1950s through the eyes of Francie, a Jewish girl from New York. At the University of Florida, Francie experiences culture shock. Here crewcut boys address all women as "Ma'am," and female students work hard to obtain their MRS before graduation. If they fail, their chances of marriage drop drastically, as the only careers open to them, teaching and nursing, limit their opportunities to meet eligible men.
In her senior year, Francie is increasingly exasperated by roommate Mary Ella Root's obsession with Bride's Magazine and her relentless determination to find a husband: "There's a cover for every pot, you know." Francie, whose secret dream is to write, is ripe for friendships centered around more meaningful pursuits. While she doesn't rule out marriage, she is more interested in "the biological imperative -- the overpowering drive to mate" than in wedding gowns, bouquets and multitiered cakes.
At an emergency dorm meeting called by the housemother over "the discovery that toilet paper is being used for the blotting of lipstick," Francie latches on to Liz and Amanda, students from her Russian literature class. Although she's never spoken to them before, Francie feels an immediate bond with these classmates. Gerber does a superb job of expressing Francie's thoughts in writers' words: "They seem more than familiar, as if they speak the language of her interior spaces."
Francie is delighted to finally have friends with whom she can discuss important issues, including why Russian Lit Professor Raskolnikov and male students are encouraged to meet at the campus coffee shop in the evenings to discuss "life and literature," while female students aren't allowed out of their rooms.
Liz and Amanda introduce Francie to their male friends, twins Bobby and Jerry, who fix foreign cars in an off-campus shop, and Liz's boyfriend, Bill. Unhappy with the lack of freedom and eager to experience real life, the six of them move into a big house off campus for their final term.
Although increased freedom means additional responsibility, it also liberates the girls to pursue their own dreams rather than fulfill others' expectations. Along the way, Francie meets and falls in love with Joshua, a young piano student, and struggles with the decision of whether to give in to her sexual desires. Today's sophisticated college students will probably be amused by the couple's surreptitious make-out sessions and Francie's unwarranted pregnancy scare, but given the mores of the day, her fears are understandable.
The downside of first-person accounts can be that the reader becomes most familiar with those characters closest to the narrator. In the case of The Glimmering Girls we know more about Francie, Liz, Amanda and Joshua. Bobby, Jerry and Bill are less well-defined and thus, some of their actions are harder to explain and defend. However, for a book about women's struggle for equality in a time when the odds were blatantly stacked against them, the focus is on-target. | June 2005
Mary Ward Menke is a contributing editor to January Magazine and the owner of WordAbilities, LLC, providing writing and editing services to businesses and individuals. Her work has been published in The Toastmaster, Dog Fancy and Science of Mind magazines, in the Suburban Journals (a weekly St. Louis community newspaper) and on STLtoday.com.