Source: Competition prize
Publication: 18 August 2022 from Avon
My thanks to Gill Paul for the opportunity to read this book in advance of publication
NEW YORK CITY, 1921
An impossible dream.
The war is over, the twenties are roaring, but in the depths of the city that never sleeps, Dorothy Parker is struggling to make her mark in a man’s world.
A broken woman.
She’s penniless, she’s unemployed and her marriage is on the rocks when she starts a bridge group with three extraordinary women – but will they be able to save her from herself?
A fight for survival.
When tragedy strikes, and everything Dorothy holds dear is threatened, it’s up to Peggy, Winifred and Jane to help her confront the truth before it’s too late. Because the stakes may be life or death…
Gill Paul’s book is set during the1920’s Prohibition era in New York. These were the days of Lucky Luciano, bootleg booze, flapper girls and the rise of speakeasies. Amidst this is the Algonquin Round Table, or the ‘Gonk’ as its habitués refer to it; home to the literary set that includes Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and other New York City writers, critics, actors, and those with sufficient wit to enjoy the chatter.
The Manhattan Girls tells the story of four of these women whose lives were connected by the Algonquin. Dorothy Parker is certainly the best known, but the others have strong stories too and together they are a formidable force. Jane Grant is a reporter for the New York Times; the first they have had. She covers women’s issues for The NYT and she is bright, organised and driven. Winifred Linehan is an actress, best known for playing the title role in George Bernard Shaw’s premiere Broadway production of Joan of Arc. She would go on to become the first director of the Theater Guild’s School of Acting in New York. Peggy Leech is a would-be writer, working on ad sales at a women’s magazine. She will go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her history books not once, but twice.
Through the mechanism of a weekly bridge club, Gill Paul tells the story of these women, their friendship, their partners and spouses and the difficulties they had in making their way as women in a largely men’s world.
Dorothy Parker struggles in her marriage to Eddie, a drinker and an abuser. No stranger to drink herself, Dorothy finds it hard to be alone and her fragile mental health is always something the women have to watch out for. Jane Grant is married to Harold Ross and they are great friends with the theatre critic Alexander Woollcott, a thoroughly waspish and unpleasant man. Jane and Harold dream of founding a magazine for New Yorkers. Peggy Leech wonders if she’ll ever find a relationship in which she can be treated as an intellectual equal and Winifred Linehan epitomises the problems faced by women in the arts long before the Me Too era.
Gill Paul beautifully blends fact and fiction together (the afterword does make it clear which is which) to create a glitzy, glamorous and dramatic portrait of these women and their lives, underscored by some seedy moments and a bunch of badly behaved and often undesirable men.
It’s a well done blend of what did happen and what could have without too many liberties and it offers great insight into what the ‘Round Table’ must have been like. At the centre, Dorothy Parker perches like a thin Raven, brilliantly witty, fragile and unstable, just wanting to be loved.
Verdict: I really loved reading about these fabulous women, their friendship, goals and aspirations in one of the most evocative eras of our time. It’s easy to get caught up in this book and Gill Paul makes the 1920’s come alive through the eyes and perspectives of each of these four women for whom their friendship was an anchor that kept them afloat.
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Gill Paul’s historical novels have reached the top of the USA Today, Toronto Globe & Mail and UK kindle charts, and been translated into twenty languages. She specializes in relatively recent history, mostly 20th century, and enjoys re-evaluating real historical characters and trying to get inside their heads. Gill also writes historical non-fiction, including A History of Medicine in 50 Objects and series of Love Stories. Published around the world, this series includes Royal Love Stories, World War I Love Stories and Titanic Love Stories. Gill was born in Scotland and grew up there, apart from an eventful year at school in the US when she was ten. She studied Medicine at Glasgow University, then English Literature and History (she was a student for a long time), before moving to London to work in publishing. Her first novel was written at weekends, but she has now given up the ‘day job’ to write fiction full-time. She also writes short stories for magazines and speaks at libraries and literary festivals about subjects ranging from the British royal family to the Romanovs, and about writing itself. Gill swims year-round in an open-air pond – “It’s good for you so long as it doesn’t kill you”– and loves travelling whenever and wherever she can.