Michael Lowenthal, 2007, 317 p.
I wasn’t all that impressed with Charity Girl, which is too bad because it had such potential. It could have been a great story, but I think that somewhere in the midst of developing the plot and characters, Mr. Lowenthal lost his way.
Now, I don’t want to be too ugly about this; Charity Girl has some good points. The setting(s) are particularly fine. Lowenthal’s imagery of Boston during World War I — the architecture, the atmosphere, the mood of the patriotic hordes seem to be just about perfect. His descriptions of some of the events that took place during that time pulled me right into the story. I enjoyed reading about parades, dance halls, and a Red Sox game starring Babe Ruth. I enjoyed reading about the movies and cars and other extraneous details of life at that time. That was all good.
What I didn’t like, and I mean absolutely didn’t like, was the main character, Frieda Mintz. She was just plain dumb. From start to finish, I had to keep reciting the following litany over and over again: “she’s only 17 and it’s a different time, she’s only 17 and it’s a different time…” because Frieda was a total moron. The only sensible things she did during the entire novel were to run away from an oppressive home and become a shopgirl. If she weren’t such a dimwit, she could eventually make her way in the world, but noooo, she has to have sex with an utterly unappealing egotistical soldier who treats her like crap and gives her syphilis. She remains infatuated with this useless man until the end of the novel when he denounces her and she finally gets a clue about what a pig he really is. Duh!
I think some male writers are bad at writing women. I’ve run into this time and time again. Perhaps Mr. Lowenthal is one of those guys who have problems writing about the wimmenfolk. I suspect that he really struggled with Frieda and with some of the other female characters as well. After Frieda was picked-up for having syphilis, she was incarcerated in a kind of halfway house with a group of prostitutes and other infected “charity girls” like herself. I had a terrible time keeping some of the characters straight. After awhile, I began telling myself that they were “Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.” (No, not Peter — “peter” was what got them thrown in there in the first place)!
Also, the book was boring, and it shouldn’t have been. Mr. Lowenthal had a wonderful idea for a dramatic tear-jerker of a novel and just frittered it away, interspersing moments of melodrama with the mind-numbing minutiae of life in the “home for bad gurrls.”
Even though I wasn’t enjoying myself, I had to finish the book to see what happened. It ended the way I expected it to, so then I felt like an idiot for wasting my time. Hey, I’m no smarter than Frieda Mintz! I should be put in a “home” too!
The premise of the novel is fascinating. This really happened to young women during World War I. Upwards of 30,000 infected women were detained in these group homes, and around half of the detainees were sent sent to real prisons upon recovery in order to protect our soldiers from their immoral clutches. How disgraceful! This was before women had the right to vote or virtually any basic rights at all. It’s too bad Charity Girl didn’t focus more on the socio-political ramifications of this bloodless coup against women. A broader scope would’ve done it a world of good.