Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Review: The Receptionist

Summary: Thanks to a successful interview with a painfully shy E. B. White, a beautiful nineteen-year-old hazel-eyed Midwesterner landed a job as receptionist at The New Yorker. There she stayed for two decades, becoming the general office factotum—watching and registering the comings and goings, marriages and divorces, scandalous affairs, failures, triumphs, and tragedies of the eccentric inhabitants of the eighteenth floor. In addition to taking their messages, Groth watered their plants, walked their dogs, boarded their cats, and sat their children (and houses) when they traveled. And although she dreamed of becoming a writer herself, she never advanced at the magazine.

This memoir of a particular time and place is as much about why that was so as it is about Groth’s fascinating relationships with poet John Berryman (who proposed marriage), essayist Joseph Mitchell (who took her to lunch every Friday), and playwright Muriel Spark (who invited her to Christmas dinner in Tuscany), as well as E. J. Kahn, Calvin Trillin, Renata Adler, Peter Devries, Charles Addams, and many other
New Yorker contributors and bohemian denizens of Greenwich Village in its heyday.

During those single-in-the-city years, Groth tried on many identities—Nice Girl, Sex Pot, Dumb Blonde, World Traveler, Doctoral Candidate—but eventually she would have to leave
The New Yorker to find her true self. -- Algonquin

I'm not sure that I would have looked twice at THE RECEPTIONIST: AN EDUCATION AT THE NEW YORKER by Janet Groth. It's definitely not my usual reading fare; however, I heard a few things about this memoir that piqued my interest. First of all, it's been on quite a few "best of" summer reading lists, and I always try to read as many of these books as possible. And secondly (and perhaps more importantly), a few readers have compared it to the television series Mad Men -- one of my all-time favorite shows. So knowing those two things, I couldn't help but want to read it.

THE RECEPTIONIST is Janet Groth's personal memoir about the two decades she spent as a receptionist at The New Yorker. She describes in vivid detail many of the writers she encountered as well as the relationships she had with them; and in many ways, this book was filled with wonderful gossip about these larger-than-life characters. While I admit that I found many of her stories to be extremely interesting (and quite a few were funny), I think much of this aspect of the novel was lost on me. I know I'm going to embarrass myself with what I'm getting ready to say, but I wasn't all that familiar with most of these names. Of course, there were some that I recognized but I can definitely say that I haven't read anything that they've written. For those who are familiar with these individuals, I have no doubt that they would be delighted with these stories because they were told in a very engaging manner.

Despite feeling a little bit like I was left in the dark, I still enjoyed this book for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I found these stories about the staff and the guest writers to be very entertaining despite not always knowing the background. Everyone could laugh at some of the writers' quirks or the secret office romances! In addition, I was very impressed with Ms. Groth's writing skills. I thought she was a beautiful writer and I loved how she told her story. She managed to bring to life a very glamorous time period in a very glamorous city with her amazing descriptions (of course, I had the Mad Men set in my mind for much of the book!); and I loved what seemed to be a book about life at The New Yorker actually turned into Ms. Groth's personal story.

And that brings me to my next point about why THE RECEPTIONIST was so special. Ms. Groth did have all of those juicy parts about the staff and writers that people would want (and expect) from a book like this, but she also managed to tell how working at The New Yorker changed her life. When she accepted the job as a receptionist, she was 19 years old -- very young and very naive. She knew that one day she ultimately wanted to become a writer; however, (I found this fascinating!) she never succeeded in that endeavor while working at the magazine.

Ms. Groth certainly had some fun times during the years she spent at The New Yorker (think Mad Men types fun!) She tried on many roles -- party girl, nice girl, sexy girl, and dumb girl -- as she struggled to discover who she really was. While she was constantly reworking how she came across in her personal live, she ironically remained in the same role as a receptionist for almost two decades (she did try another role or two there with no luck!). It wasn't until she decided that she had to leave the magazine that her life really took off. As I read this book, I was so impressed with Ms. Groth's astute assessments of herself and what she needed to do to make the necessary changes in her life.

Overall, I liked THE RECEPTIONIST for the glimpse it gave me into Ms. Groth's reign as a receptionist at The New Yorker. However, I really enjoyed it because I appreciated seeing how Ms. Groth eventually came into her own as an independent woman.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book.


Beth Kephart said...

so eager to read this book!

Beth F said...

I really liked this one. I didn't recognize *every* name, but many of them. It's crazy how she was unable to advance at the magazine. And you're right, it's a great snapshot of an era.

Serena said...

I haven't read this one yet, but it sounds like a memoir I would enjoy...and I generally don't read that genre.

Audra said...

I too enjoyed this one despite being in the dark about the figures -- did you see the NY Times article about this book -- there were pics of Groth from her time at the New Yorker and omg, she is a knockout! It makes me sad there weren't pictures included in it (at least, my ARC didn't have them) -- it made it even more real.

bermudaonion said...

I didn't realize this is a memoir! That makes me very excited - you know how I love memoirs!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I don't usually like memoirs but you have gotten me pretty interested in this one!

Carol said...

I don't read many memoirs, but this one seems like a really fascinating peek at that point in time at that place.