I have been a long time subscriber and reader of The New Yorker magazine. When I heard about this new book by Janet Groth, who worked at the magazine for 17 years as a receptionist during the storied years of William Shawn as editor, I was really excited to read it. Unfortunately, after reading it I mostly found it disappointing.
The book primarily suffers from a problem of expectations. Most people who read this are likely New Yorker readers and are going to be wanting inside information and a view into the workings of the magazine. At least that is what I expected, partially based on the cover and book jacket blurbs. But that’s not what Groth gives the reader. There is very little about day to day life at The New Yorker. Groth does write about many of the writers and celebrities she knew during her tenure. However, this mostly comes across as name-dropping. (Groth also likes to do a lot of literary “name-dropping”. For no reason other than to show she can she will insert quotes from Joyce or James. We get it, she’s well-read.)
What the book is about is Groth’s own personal journey. She grew up in the Midwest and came to New York wanting to be a writer. During her long employment at The New Yorker she attended graduate school, eventually earning a PhD and going onto become a university professor. The book jacket alludes to the mystery of why Groth never rose above the level of receptionist at The New Yorker. However, it becomes clear early on that this is mostly due to her own confusion about who she is and what she wants. Is she a sex-loving party girl? A devout Lutheran trying to make it in a secular city? A girl trying to find a father figure in the procession of older men she serial dates? A serious writer?
At the end of the book Groth finally admits to this inner struggle, which I give her credit for. However, even at the age of 75 she still seems to not know who she is or how she wants to tell her story. At times she seems proud of her exploits and seems to mention on every other page how attractive men found her younger self. At other times she seems to be saying that her promiscuous lifestyle was a major problem. What is missing is an overarching narrative or theme. We get a lot of details about what Groth ate at various lunches and dinners and a lot of long-winded asides about minor “characters”. We don’t get a lot more until the very end and at that point it’s a little late. Ultimately, this results in a book that just never comes together and is ultimately kind of boring.