Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

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Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: The 1950s publishing milieu takes centre stage in this follow-up to The Other Typist. As three young people collide over a debated manuscript, Rindell expertly evokes New York City's Beat culture and the post-war paranoia over communism and homosexuality.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 493 Date: May 2016
Publisher: Allison & Busby
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780749020828

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In 2013 we loved The Other Typist for its gripping plot, terrific characters and effortless recreation of the Jazz Age. Well, Rindell has done it again, though this time her chosen time period is the late 1950s. She brings the bustling, cutthroat New York City publishing world to life through the connections between three main characters whose first-person voices fit together like a dream: Cliff Nelson, a Columbia dropout who plans to be the next Hemingway and also happens to be the son of a premier editor at Bonwright; Eden Katz, who moved from Indiana to be a secretary at a publishing house but has ambitions of becoming an editor; and Miles Tillman, a black man who works as a bicycle messenger for Eden's publisher but has literary hopes of his own.

The novel opens in 1958, immediately depositing readers in a convincing version of the bohemian Village: blacks and whites intermingle at drunken parties, Beat poets perform in smoke-filled cafés, and jazz blares away. It's no surprise to Cliff that graduates would come from all over the country to surround themselves with this kind of creative energy: 'They arrived in New York on Greyhounds from all over America with an air of great optimism about them, young single people willing to live in terrible apartments and work for peanuts so long as Manhattan dazzled them with her bright lights and taxi-horn siren song.'

Eden, one of those optimistic graduates, gets herself a job as secretary to gruff Mr Turner at Torchon & Lyle. She has no delusions about striking it rich, but she's willing to sacrifice marriage and a family if she has to. 'If you worked in publishing you did it for the exciting books and authors and all the parties that went along with them; you didn't do it for the groceries your paycheck bought and if you didn't understand that much going into it, then you were a silly little fool. I should know. I was a silly little fool.' Indeed, she was so naïve going in that she didn't realise why her academic reference insisted on giving her a backup letter under the name 'Eden Collins,' anticipating the anti-Semitism she might encounter. This second letter comes in handy when she falls foul of catty office politics and has to start over. (Her new Audrey-Hepburn-in-Roman Holiday hairdo doesn't hurt either.)

The three main characters meet socially at bars in the Village but also keep running into each other through their publishing connections. They share the narration in blocks of several chapters at a time. Cliff's wonderfully slang-filled voice helps to clinch the time period. Even though Miles grew up in a crummy apartment in Harlem, his is the most standard English, reflecting his college degree and authorial aspirations. Leaving his fiancée and his second job as assistant to an ageing writer behind, Miles sets off for California to learn the truth about his father's war service. At a San Francisco YMCA he finds his father's journal and starts piecing the story together for himself in a kind of dual memoir.

Meanwhile, Cliff is questioning his relationship with his own father, who thinks of him as a freeloader and hack with no literary promise. At one of Cliff's three-martini lunch meetings with 'My Old Man,' as he always refers to him, Roger Nelson warns him that writing 'takes a great deal of talent. Not to mention a good deal of patience and experience. … The world doesn't need another failed writer, Clifford.' He refuses to publish Cliff's Hemingway pastiche stories, yet Cliff, determined to prove his father wrong, tries again when a new idea comes to him for a novel reflecting on wartime from the present day.

It would be difficult to say more about the three narrators' interactions without giving too much away. Instead I'll just reiterate how well Rindell creates her historical atmosphere. Walking into Eden's new office with her, especially, you'll think you've landed on the set of television's Mad Men. But Rindell shows the full gamut of New York City experience, from suburban country clubs to seedy sections of Central Park. She also elicits reader empathy as her characters' searches for professional and personal fulfilment run up against roadblocks of prejudice. The novel picks up pace as it goes on, until eventually the perspective switches with nearly every chapter. Although there isn't a classically unreliable narrator like in The Other Typist, a late revelation does force the reader to question whether these narrators are all the villains of their own stories as much as they are the heroes.

This classy, well-plotted follow-up will win Rindell even more fans and tide us all over until the film version of The Other Typist – produced by and starring Keira Knightley – appears.

Further reading suggestion: Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer has a similarly sparkling 1950s New York setting, while My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, though it takes place some decades later, gives an insider view of working in the literary world. You might also enjoy The Doll House by Fiona Davis.

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