Off the Shelf: Two sides of the 1980s

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The 1980s was a period of upheaval, particularly for women, because it seemed two distinct paths were open: one, the traditional path for women to marry and have children and, the second, a career, sometimes in fields that previously had rarely included women. Two recent novels focus on these choices: “Andrea Hoffman Goes All In” by Diane Cohen Schneider (She Writes Press) features a woman who chooses to work in a non-traditional field, while the main character in Corie Adjimi’s “The Marriage Box” (She Writes Press) finds herself unexpectedly thinking about marriage, rather than college.

Two years after her graduation from college, Andrea Hoffman is working in a clothing store in Chicago. The choice was not deliberate: she simply had no idea what to do with her life. Her parents are encouraging her to attend law school, something that does not interest her. However, when a robbery at the clothing store makes her realize she needs to move on, Andrea is still not sure what she actually wants to do. She takes a job in finance and discovers a fascinating and complex world that not only keeps her interest, but which offers great financial rewards. Although being Jewish and a woman are both strikes against her, Andrea becomes a success in her field. 

Things are not perfect, though: the hours she works make it difficult to have a social life. It doesn’t help that she’s not completely over the college boyfriend who cheated on her. Other problems come with the lifestyle, including alcohol indulgence, cocaine, overspending and one-night affairs. But when something happens to a person she cares about deeply, Andrea realizes she needs to find a way to keep working in the field she loves, while finding more balance in her life.

Andrea is an engaging character and, while readers may not understand exactly what she does, the author manages to convey the excitement she and her co-workers feel after making a successful deal. The novel also portrays the ambivalence women felt at the time about whether it was possible to be successful in business and have a personal life. But what is clear is that, just like men, women can thrive on the adrenaline caused by the rise and fall of stocks.
While “Andrea Hoffman Goes All In” begins after its main character has finished with college, “The Marriage Box” offers a look at Casey Cohen, whose life radically changes when she is 16-years-old. After getting into trouble in New Orleans, Casey’s parents move her and her brother to Brooklyn to live in the Orthodox Syrian community in which her father grew up. No longer does Casey attend a school whose aim is partly to help her seek higher education; she now attends a yeshiva whose goal is to prepare her for marriage and children. The marriage box of the title is a pool deck where young girls show off their bodies in bikinis: while they learn about modesty at the yeshiva, that doesn’t apply when it comes to landing a husband. Consumer culture forms a major part of this world: the young women and their mothers buy expensive garments and household furnishings, competing to see who has the most and the best taste.

Although at first Casey resists the social pressure to conform, she finds herself attracted to the Syrian lifestyle, if only to stop being lonely and feel as if she belongs somewhere. When she meets Michael, their relationship feels perfect and their marriage one made in heaven. (Since the marriage is announced in the opening pages of the novel, this doesn’t spoil any surprises.) But Casey soon realizes she wants more than to be a wife and longs for college. Michael, on the other hand, expects her to be satisfied with her traditional role and begin to have children, even though she’s still a teenager. The question becomes whether Casey will give up her dreams of higher education. The survival of her marriage may depend on that.

Although the novel is generally well done, readers may have a few quibbles, for example, expecting to learn more about what happened in New Orleans, although it becomes clear there is nothing more to reveal. For those who lived through the 1970s and ‘80s, and read other books about young women forced to make the same decisions Casey does, the book may feels a bit like a repeat of those previous works. However, the look at the Syrian Jewish community, which may not be familiar, was excellent and intriguing. Those sections helped make “The Marriage Box” worth reading, especially for younger readers who are unfamiliar with the choices women made during that time period.