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Striking a nerve with novel takes on women's lib

Ah, the 1950s. The so-called golden time when some women went to college for their M.R.S. degree, a time when, for many women, the answer to the question ''Can this marriage be saved?" was always yes. But even in the '50s, the back seat women were allotted was beginning to be a tad cramped. And if literature mirrors its times -- or acts as a subversive crystal ball to a decidedly different future -- what better way to chart this changing era than two paperback reissues of classics about women's lives?

When Rona Jaffe's ''The Best of Everything" (Penguin, $15) came out, in 1958, it was revolutionary. Young women -- as shown by the snappy vintage cover of the reissue -- were suddenly entering the workforce in droves. Inside the novel are some of the original reviews, including warnings that the book should be read by anyone with ''dramatic ideas" about young career gals. There's also a spectacular new foreword by Jaffe, who was told to ''look back in horror and write" about her own stint toiling for a publishing company. But Jaffe cast a wider net, interviewing other female worker bees and uncovering all the things that weren't spoken about in polite company, things that any girl, stuck in a tiny apartment, and worried that she might be ''bad" could relate to. Published when Jaffe was just 26, the novel was an instant sensation and made her career.

Jaffe's novel limns the lives of five young employees. There's actress Gregg, whose free spirit hides her obsessive husband hunt; bumpkin April, who transforms herself into the girl every man wants; Barbara, whose single-mother status resigns her to the lonely life; and Caroline, whose jilting by her true love boosts her up the editorial ladder. But while the women are daring for their time -- living in apartments, crafting careers, and even (gasp!) sleeping with men before they're married -- the underlying message of the book is still cautionary. Yes, it's great to have a career, but you can't have ''the best of everything." Career and marriage are either/or propositions. Marry and say goodbye to your job. Work too long, and you end up out of the marriage market and as brittle as peanut candy, and so world-weary that the career you adored now is simply a job.

Of course, it's compulsively readable. Jaffe's a wonderful, sharp writer, and she's created real women. Though I wanted to shake them, I also ached for their pain.

Fast forward a few years. If the brass ring the women in ''The Best of Everything" are grabbing for is marriage and family, Sue Kaufman's chillingly funny ''The Diary of a Mad Housewife" (Thunder's Mouth, $14.95), first published in 1967, reveals that ring's tarnish. Diary was also a sensation in its time, and like Jaffe's book, became a hit movie. This reissue also has a forward, but alas, it's a rather lackluster one by the usually talented Maggie Estep, who seems chosen mainly because her nervy poetic tirades are in polar opposition to the novel.

Here, the working girl is now morphed into Manhattan wife and mother, Bettina (Tina) Balser, and Tina fears her life is making her go mad. Tina once dreamed of being an artist until a psychiatrist insisted her creativity was born out of rage and it was better to be a good wife and mother. But given Tina's life, that's not so easy. New York City's a laundry list of terrors for her. Her two girls are spoiled and petulant, and her husband, Jonathan, is a social climbing prig who criticizes Tina for her meals and her appearance, and when he's not coyly asking for ''a little ole roll in the hay," harangues her to go see a psychiatrist again. Tina's only refuge is the diary she keeps, which is, of course, the novel.

Looking at the book with a modern sensibility, it's easy to peck at Tina. Why did she allow her girls to become miniature Jonathans? Why doesn't she leave the big jerk she married and get a job and craft a life of her own? And why, since her diary is so witty and entertaining, doesn't she simply become a writer?

Ah, there's the rub.

Because the times haven't caught up with her yet. Because it's still the '60s, and despite it also being the era of free love and hippies, that's only a small scrap of the American fabric, and women striking out on their own back then was not socially acceptable. The best Tina can do is rage in writing, numb herself with alcohol, and look for love -- and very small changes -- where she can find them.

In the end, while both novels uncover women's lives, neither one offers a satisfying next step. You might be promised ''the best of everything," but that promise never delivers. In ''Diary," Tina has an affair with a brilliant cad who dumps her. When she finds out Jonathan's also strayed, she refuses divorce, because for her, marriage is still the prize. ''I knew what I meant to have and be, and I was going to go after it," she says. And this particular marriage is saved.

But maybe those are minor quibbles, because truthfully, modern solutions aren't the point in these retro classics. Because before you can solve problems, you have to explore them. And in both engrossingly readable novels, feminist nerves have been resoundingly touched, and the hidden lives of women have been revealed. And don't forget that looming ahead, ready to start quite another revolution, is Betty Friedan's ''The Feminine Mystique."

Caroline Leavitt's latest novel is ''Girls in Trouble." She can be reached at

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