The Receptionist by Janet Groth
Author: Janet Groth
Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir / 1950s / 1960s / 1970s / New York City / New Yorker Magazine / Writing)
Publisher/Publication Date: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (6/6/2012)
Source: The publisher.
Did I finish?: I inhaled this book in one night.
Reading Challenges: Dewey Decimal
Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover -- it captures the feel of retro New York City and I love the woman with the pencil in her hair -- so cute!
First line: It all happened by the merest chance.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you're a Mad Men fiend or like writers on writing, or enjoy coming-of-age stories in complicated, vigorous times.
Why did I get this book?: I love books on books, and memoirs of writers on other writers.
Review: Although I don't read The New Yorker, I'm aware of its reputation, the careers launched, the personalities housed there, (and I've certainly read pieces that debuted there, anthologized later); so when offered a review copy of Groth's memoir, I pounced.
This was a book so good I've lost the ability to arrange letters into words. So I apologize now for the jumpy, incoherent gush of a review that follows.
From the first pages, I was sold on Groth.
Mr. [E.B.] White took a moment to absorb this information. When he could bring himself to speak again, he asked, "Can you type?"
"Not at a professional level," I said.
He coughed and looked at the resume that Arthur Zegart had given him and that had led to my being there in his office. "What about this short story prize you won?...Was that story typed?"
I told him that yes, of course it had been, but that I deliberately maintained a slow, self-devised system that involved looking at the keyboard.
"I was afraid, you see, that if I became a skilled typist, I would wind up in an office typing pool." (p2)
I want Groth to be my bestie -- who wouldn't?! Candidly she shares how she got her job, the professors who inspired her to take up writing, the writers she worked with, the love affairs, her aspirations as a writer and a scholar, and the way The New Yorker changed throughout her time there. This memoir is a series of vignettes from 1957 to 1978. Technically there as just a receptionist, Groth's life was shaped and impacted by the personalities she assisted, supported, befriended, romanced, entertained, liked, disliked, loved, and lost: Muriel Spark, John Berryman, Joseph Mitchell, Renata Adler, and hosts of others.
Groth came-of-age at an era that, frankly, frightens me -- the late '50s and '60s -- in big, bad New York City, working for a literary magazine that was renown then for the personalities and expense lines. When women were having to find, invent, reinvent, discover, and hide themselves, Groth navigated that time with not unsurprising bumps and fits, and she shares her experiences without shame. (Happily!) I found her to be breathtakingly honest in her account of her time at The New Yorker. Her tone sounds a little bemused, a little pained, a little wry -- not aloof, but aware -- and I was often holding my breath in amazement. Her writing is so honest and unapologetic, and yet, she shares enough warmth and vulnerability that I felt deeply sympathetic toward her.
Even if you're not familiar with the writers from The New Yorker, if you enjoy memoirs and coming-of-age stories, get this one. Like a surprisingly dangerous aunt, Groth's stories are titillating, gasp-inducing, fascinating, depressing, and inspiring.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Receptionist to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 6/22.