Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
This is the fictionalized story of Bess Myerson — the first Jewish Miss America, winning the prize in 1945. The author chose to focus the book on her early life — her upbringing, experiences in the Bronx (where the family had moved from the Lower East side for the trees, parks, and fresh air!), and her moral development. The book follows her story in a primarily linear fashion, culminating in an appearance at Carnegie Hall at the end of her year as Miss America. The epilogue goes on to summarize the rest of her professional life on TV and in public government and her personal life (I’ll let you read that in the epilogue so I don’t spoil the story).
What I loved in the book was the description of the Jewish community life in the Sholom Aleichem Housing complex (open to Jews when most were not). Her entire extended family lived in the 200 apartments across 15 buildings. The community was full of musicians and artists and though her family was by no means well-off, she was given piano lessons from an early age and as pushed to excel. That is the Jewish culture in which I was raised — not one of religion but of art, music, and study! — and I love reading biographies and stories that percolated out of Jewish New York City in that time period (check out any Marx Brother biography for an even wilder, but somewhat similar, ride).
What I didn’t love about the book was the level of fictionalization. I’m not a fan of fictionalizing real people when dialog and thoughts are created when none actually occur. The author does a good job of summarizing what she made up vs what was real at the end of the book, but for my taste she made up too much — she added in scenes that she felt could have happened based on her deep understanding of the character and that is her prerogative, but I really like to keep my fact and fiction separated. I can honestly say that I doubt this will bother anybody else — I seem to be the only person who likes to keep the line between fact and fiction solid and thick!
Thank you to She Writes Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 12th, 2023