Thursday, August 25, 2011

Roast Beef, Medium. A book review.

Roast Beef, Medium. By Edna Ferber.

I had high expectations for this book going in. I was disappointed. I've always heard that Ms. Ferber was one of the original feminist authors and wrote books with strong female characters.


Pretty much nothing happens in this book. Although I like the heroine, Emma, I found her life kind of boring and stereotypical. She's thin, beautiful, well-coiffed, well-dressed, young-looking for her age (36), and good at her career. In her spare time she sews the buttons and snaps onto her clothing before they have the chance to fall off. Really? The most daring and radical thing about her is that she's divorced and has a nearly grown son. Scandalous!

I suppose that when this book was written - 1913 - there weren't a lot of women who worked outside their homes, and even fewer who were divorced. Those two things alone may have made this book "feminist". I found it kind of sad that Emma:
  • had to be beautiful to be good at her career, a traveling petticoat salesman. (Petticoats? Really? I find that hilarious.)
  • uses the fact that she's a woman against her male competitors when waiting to call on store's buyers. She not only allows them to always let her go first because she's a lady, she counts on it. So is she truly good at her job, or did she just get in the door first?
  • longs for the simple joys of home and kitchen.
  • has these close women friends who understand her, and so indulge her wholesome desire to put on an apron, a kerchief over her hair, and really get after it with a rag and bucket of soapy water.
Even the title, Roast Beef, Medium refers to the "truth" that when traveling it's better and safer to stick to something that will agree with your digestion, like roast beef, medium, rather than experiment with any fancy sauce or exotic new dish. Better to stick with familiarity and tradition than try something new. This is feminism? Maybe in the early 1900's the "natural order of things" demanded even a feminist writer to declare that if a divorced woman found success and satisfaction in a career outside the home, in her good, womanly heart she secretly had to want to be a homemaker.

Not that there's anything wrong with being a homemaker, mind you. I am one. But it's my choice to do this, and not because it's my place.

Does that make sense? We certainly have come a long way, baby. But do working women today really secretly wish they could be at home tending babies, washing dishes, and shaking out throw rugs?

There was one other character in the book that I found interesting, Blanche LeHay. She is the female lead in a burlesque show, and one conversation that she has with Emma when Emma thinks to pluck Blanche out of her seedy and dis-respectable life is the most insightful part of the book. Emma offers Blanche the opportunity to leave the burlesque and work in the office of her employer, T.A. Buck Featherloom Petticoats. Blanche tells Emma that she is unfit for such a job, in fact she "couldn't hold down a job in a candy factory", and is doing the only thing she's capable of - the burlesque show. Is Emma wiser, or is Blanche? Do women work at those kind of jobs because they are truly unable to do anything else? I don't know but it's the one part of the book that I'm thinking about still, days later. I want to mention that even Blanche, when given the opportunity to have some rare time off, would rather peel a bowlful of potatoes than do anything else. Seriously.

I think I'll need to read more of Ferber's books to come to any conclusion about her other than that she is a product of her times, like all of us. If nothing else, it's interesting to see what was expected of women a century ago.

1 comment:

  1. I read many of Edna Ferber's books and never even saw this one. Sounds like I didn't miss much. I loved many of them. Try again, Honey.