Audra (Unabridged Chick)'s Reviews > The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker

The Receptionist by Janet Groth
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
3083001
Although I don't read The New Yorker, I'm aware of its reputation, the careers launched, the personalities housed there, (and I've certainly read pieces that debuted there, anthologized later); so when offered a review copy of Groth's memoir, I pounced.

This was a book so good I've lost the ability to arrange letters into words. So I apologize now for the jumpy, incoherent gush of a review that follows.

From the first pages, I was sold on Groth.

Mr. [E.B.] White took a moment to absorb this information. When he could bring himself to speak again, he asked, "Can you type?"

"Not at a professional level," I said.

He coughed and looked at the resume that Arthur Zegart had given him and that had led to my being there in his office. "What about this short story prize you won?...Was that story typed?"

I told him that yes, of course it had been, but that I deliberately maintained a slow, self-devised system that involved looking at the keyboard.

"I was afraid, you see, that if I became a skilled typist, I would wind up in an office typing pool."
(p2)


I want Groth to be my bestie -- who wouldn't?! Candidly she shares how she got her job, the professors who inspired her to take up writing, the writers she worked with, the love affairs, her aspirations as a writer and a scholar, and the way The New Yorker changed throughout her time there. This memoir is a series of vignettes from 1957 to 1978. Technically there as just a receptionist, Groth's life was shaped and impacted by the personalities she assisted, supported, befriended, romanced, entertained, liked, disliked, loved, and lost: Muriel Spark, John Berryman, Joseph Mitchell, Renata Adler, and hosts of others.

Groth came-of-age at an era that, frankly, frightens me -- the late '50s and '60s -- in big, bad New York City, working for a literary magazine that was renown then for the personalities and expense lines. When women were having to find, invent, reinvent, discover, and hide themselves, Groth navigated that time with not unsurprising bumps and fits, and she shares her experiences without shame. (Happily!) I found her to be breathtakingly honest in her account of her time at The New Yorker. Her tone sounds a little bemused, a little pained, a little wry -- not aloof, but aware -- and I was often holding my breath in amazement. Her writing is so honest and unapologetic, and yet, she shares enough warmth and vulnerability that I felt deeply sympathetic toward her.

Even if you're not familiar with the writers from The New Yorker, if you enjoy memoirs and coming-of-age stories, get this one. Like a surprisingly dangerous aunt, Groth's stories are titillating, gasp-inducing, fascinating, depressing, and inspiring.
5 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Receptionist.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

06/12/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

Moira Russell "I was afraid, you see, that if I became a skilled typist, I would wind up in an office typing pool."

DUDE, my mother, who came of age in just that era, doesn't type either for just that reason. Well she _can_ type - all the girls were required to take typing classes in high school, I think. She just doesn't. Won't.


Audra (Unabridged Chick) Isn't that frightening women had to do that to be seen as real people, not paper doll employees?!


Moira Russell Aww man, I forgot how much you liked it - sorry, I didn't mean to come off as a total bitch! I actually liked it pretty well up til after the bit about Greece - then I was dismayed at the time-jumping and then it just felt like pages and pages of how wonderful the guy who became her husband was, and she'd known him for almost the entire period of time she was writing about, but he was only introduced at the end? argh.


Audra (Unabridged Chick) You didn't come off as a total bitch!! I so blocked out the end as I really loved her discussing her early years that -- yearning for identity, a mature attitude toward life that she didn't have (Midwest vs New York), and her honesty abt her choice of destructive relationships.


message 5: by Moira (last edited Jul 07, 2012 04:06PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Moira Russell (paraphrasing some of this from the email I just sent you - hope you don't mind!!)

Aww, I just mainly didn't want to seem like I was insulting your literary judgement, which I think is excellent.

I did actually like the early chapters about Mitchell, Berryman and Spark -- those seemed polished, and were quite vivid. But I just draaaagged through the middle passage about the two bad boyfriends and how she fucked around, which she seemed really judgemental about, like her later religious self was terribly disapproving of her younger self. I was all set to hear about what happened after she got back from Greece. But then really the book just seemed to fall apart, structurally speaking, and the ending was ALL ABOUT HER HUSBAND. Who turned me off in about a hundred different ways right from when he opened his mouth - "Let's not rap about this relationship bullshit baby, either we feel it or we don't." UGH.

I mean, I really wanted to hear about how she did in grad school! How she hung in there all those years! When did she get her first teaching job? Write her first book or article? And frankly the stuff about "Mr Shawn" and Mehta and Trillin &c was so thin it didn't make up for not getting that.

And then right near the very END of the book all of a sudden she does start analyzing the old-boy network and the sexism and discrimination, and I was like Yes! More of this! -- and then the book was OVER. WTF.


Moira Russell Also, altho this is sheer, rank speculation on my part, the book honestly read to me like she had some parts of the manuscript that were written beforehand - the three portraits that lead it off, and the years from about 1959-1961, or maybe even til 1963 - and after she ran out of those, it was totally blurry and vague and unclear. A memoir is not of course a novel but it has to have the same kind of long-term structure, even if it's only "A and then B and then C happened," or Vignette 1-Vignette 2-Vignette 3 with a running theme (which was what I thought the shape would be after the first three portraits, but no). But this book seems like she got to the Dread Middle of the Book that defeats so many writers and the structure just collapsed on her. It was really unclear what was happening from about Greece on - like when she went on about that woman who was reorganizing her desk drawers and book shelf (WHAT) and I thought, is this the seventies? but no, there were references that made clear it was a lot later. And then all of a sudden there's her husband, whom she apparently met around the same time she did the Dread Cartoonist, and instead of having him as this quiet background figure who gets more and more of her attention until he blooms in his own right (think of Lucy and M Paul!) it was all in this dreadfully unconvincing CHUNK right near the end. Oh look the Prince was there all along! Bleah.

I also have to wonder if the latter part of her 21 years there isn't deliberately vague and blurry because more people are alive from that era.


Audra (Unabridged Chick) Moira wrote: "...the book honestly read to me like she had some parts of the manuscript that were written beforehand..."

Agreed -- it felt v solid and distinct and as you say later, the blurriness was -- I suspected -- a way to keep privacy of those still living. I read this as a gossipy tell all so that was disappointing.

Moira wrote: "And then all of a sudden there's her husband, whom she apparently met around the same time she did the Dread Cartoonist, and instead of having him as this quiet background figure who gets more and more of her attention until he blooms in his own right (think of Lucy and M Paul!) it was all in this dreadfully unconvincing CHUNK right near the end."

I actually read that basically as an apology to him -- for finding other men attractive, for having sex with them, etc. -- she had to throw that in to show she's not wholly immoral, etc etc. Were this a man's memoir, would he wax so rhapsodic about his wife?


Moira Russell Audra (Unabridged Chick) wrote: "Were this a man's memoir, would he wax so rhapsodic about his wife? "

GOOD QUESTION

Also I found out he died in 00! so maybe that explains some of it. And actually Conde Nast laid off all the NYorker receptionists in 2009, and they even cut the ex-employees' honorary subscriptions to the magazine, isn't that something.


Audra (Unabridged Chick) Moira wrote: "...hey even cut the ex-employees' honorary subscriptions to the magazine..."

W.O.W. Did it really save that much money??


message 10: by Moira (new) - rated it 1 star

Moira Russell Audra (Unabridged Chick) wrote: "Moira wrote: "...hey even cut the ex-employees' honorary subscriptions to the magazine..."
W.O.W. Did it really save that much money??"


Well, they had to do something to save Charles Townsend's pension, apparently.


back to top