Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bridget Jones of the 1950s: The Dinner Party by Gretchen Finletter

The Dinner Party (From the Journal of a Lady of Today) by Gretchen Finletter (1954)

Every now and again, one stumbles onto a book about The Rich and Their Problems, and though these problems are annoying in that they are both trifling and particular to the rich, one sits back and begins to enjoy reading about them.

One of the many things I enjoy about books about this class from this time period is the habit of somewhat Arbitrary Capitalization that their authors tend to favor. Even the reviewers seem to fall prey to it. In the review of The Dinner Party that appeared in Time in 1955, the author writes, "Dinner Party is charming chatter, with just a lemon-twist of real wit. It is the kind of book a woman likes because it is So True, and may even beguile an idle husband."

The author of the journal, and our narrator, is a perpetually bewildered woman in her 40s, who has moved to the country with her husband who is working on His Book. Though she generally means well, and tries her best to embody the virtues of gracious living, our narrator is a hopeless case, terrified of confrontations with the cook, flustered by the prospect of hosting a dinner party, and never quite taken seriously by anyone, even her own family.

However, the jams that our lady finds herself in are frequently hilarious. In my favorite of these, she is given the task of managing the bake sale for her daughters' school. In order to drum up extra business, she commissions her next-door-neighbor to pose as an Egyptian fortune teller and set up a tent behind the bake sale table. I won't spoil how it happens, but suffice it to say, she nearly succeeds in getting her neighbor (who is neither Egyptian nor a fortune teller) vaccinated and deported.

Her journal entries are written in the crisp, breezy prose of a woman who has things Under Control, but like her Less Fortunate descendant Bridget Jones, the contents reveal a woman who is anything but. In one entry, the lady writes,

"Make up my mind to be clear-headed and authoritative and write out on pad what I plan to have for dinner party. Will then go into kitchen and simply Tell Roza. Rehearse conversation. Must not begin with 'Oh by the way, Roza, we are having a few people in,' which is cowardly, nor 'Give me your suggestions, Roza,' which is craven, but go into kitchen, say 'Good morning,' bring out my pad and list, and tell her, pleasantly of course, that we are going to have a small dinner of about eighteen people...

Decide instead to go to Mary Jane's Beauty Shoppe. Know it is several days before the party but do not wish Mrs. Pullman to imagine that the dinner is so important to me that my hair has been especially waved for it, and feel it is more worldly to have it on the night either a bit over-ripe or under-done."

Like Ms. Jones, the narrator is a woman who is constantly plagued with doubts about her appearance, her abilities, her relationships. However, the narrator of The Dinner Party would probably trade places with Bridget in a heartbeat. Despite her foibles, Bridget Jones is a singleton who eventually realizes that if she is not her own champion, no one else will be, while the narrator is a married, settled, and moneyed woman who, despite her privilege, is always in danger of becoming invisible and taken for granted.

And unlike Bridget Jones, our narrator does not possess the Inner Resources to pull herself up by the bootstraps. She can only face her future with self-deprecating wit, a brave face, and a healthy measure of resignation.

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