Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Red Leather Diary

My book club chose to read The Red Leather Diary for the month of May. I bought the book online and couldn't wait to start reading it. Why was I so anxious to get it in the mail? Because it's about something found in the trash that tells a story of another woman's life. Sounds good, eh?

It all starts with a bunch (I think close to 100, if memory serves me correctly) very old steamer trunks that are being dug up from the basement of an apartment building in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Lily Kopel, the author of the book, is a budding writer for the New York Times who happens to be living in the building at the time that the management decides it's time to clean out the basement. On her way to work one morning, she finds a trash bin full of old stuff in trunks and then hops on into the dumpster to begin her dig.

Let me stop here to say that my chest was tight when I was reading that part of the story. How could all of that cool old stuff be so overlooked? Were they really going to just trash everything without even looking through the trunks? How insane! I wanted desperately to be there, digging my way through the private lives of unknown people with her. Ah, the joy of digging through the trash... you never know what you'll find. (I'm being a bit silly... I don't go digging in the trash, at least not that often.)

Among other vintage items that Lily couldn't part with, she finds a red leather diary that belonged to Florence Wolfson- a teen aged girl who received the journal as a gift for her fourteenth birthday. In her diary, which she writes in on a daily basis, she journals about the big and small things in her life; what it's like to as a socialite living in the upper class of New York City, her dreams and aspirations as a soon-to-be-woman, her lovers (many of them were lesbian relationships), and her school and family experiences. On a side note, I thought people back then didn't have sex until they were married. Wow, there was lots of sex before marriage happening in the 1930's. Very impressive.

Lily uses her skills as a journalist and the help of an investigator to track down the original owner of the diary (Florence lives in Florida now and is in her nineties) and the book is born.

The idea of the book was wonderful, but I thought it wasn't written as well as it could have been. I understand that the author tried to recreate Florence's world, and I appreciated the history of what it was like in New York at that time. However, I thought that her story could have been told a little better. By the end of the book, I still had so many questions.

I finished reading this book while on a plane ride back from a weekend without my kids and husband in Los Angeles, therefore, I had plenty of time to think about it. What's impressive to me is that the yearning that women have for a life of their own, lived on their own terms, hasn't changed much in the last hundred years. But does society still secretly urge young girls to hurry up and find herself a husband to have babies with? Is there still that pressure for women to have an identity that's tied into a man to be successful? I wonder.

Florence was incredibly gifted and could have gone on to make a life for herself, as an artist, a writer; whatever she wanted to be, she was the type of person who probably could have pulled it off. But what did she do? She up and got married and had babies and stayed home to raise those babies. Not that that's a bad thing. But why? Why did she cave to the pressure of society and her parents to do what was required of women at the time? What happened in Florence's life after she quit writing in the diary? What propelled her to make the decisions that she did?

See what I mean? I wanted more when the book was done. Not having closure at the end of a book is never a good thing, unless there's a sequel planned. I doubt it's going to happen with this one, so I will just have to make assumptions in the case of Florence Wolfson and her life that she lived.

What was the general thought from the others in the group who read the book? There were a couple who didn't like it, possibly because she had non-traditional relationships and many people don't like reading about people who are gay (even if they are only gay for a short period of time). I think I asked why, but I can't remember their reason for not liking it now. Must have been the two beers that I had downed by the time we started talking about the book that made me forget parts of the conversation. But, the majority of the ladies seemed to like the book. In fact, we spent the most time talking about this book than any other in our book club for the past year and a half. So I'd say you should buy it and read it. And tell me what you think. But make sure I haven't started drinking yet or I'll just forget what you said.



  1. hmmm...your review of this book makes me wish i'd read it! maybe i'll be a book club flunky and read it now (late).

  2. I found the book both interesting & boring at the same time. Oxymoron anyone! I thought it was interesting because it was a glimpse into history (New York in the 30s), boring because she seemed like such a self-absorbed person.