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    Reimagining the life of a ’50s woman executive

    B. Newman/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    Joanna Scott’s compelling and complex new novel is chockablock with history, feminism, social divisions, environmental blight, office politics, maternal bonding, urban displacement, women’s friendships, corruption, sexism, and murder. Add to this, a large cast of characters spanning the late ’50s to 9/11.

    At first, sorting out the seemingly haphazard story sections can be daunting; the lack of chronological order can confuse. But keep at it. There’s method in such apparent madness — an ingenious structure with a big payoff. The aha! moment strikes when one character explains “. . . to find meaning in the confusing morass of life . . . consider arranging the pieces in accordance with the force of association rather than in obedience to the order of time.” It’s hard not to marvel at the way Scott fits the jagged puzzle pieces together to form the novel’s finished whole.

    Not many women in the ’50s can claim the kind of career that the real-life Lee Jaffe had. As head of public relations at New York Port Authority, she is the center around which Scott’s fiction evolves. Those women lucky enough to be inspired by Jaffe aren’t doomed to the secretarial pool. Thanks to their mentor, they learn the value of women’s work and hear they can make it after all.

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    Not that the majority want to. Maggie Gleason, a new office employee fresh out of Cleveland and the story’s narrator, notes that Jaffe’s typists aren’t keen on a career. In 1958, they’ve headed to New York to find husbands. They barely nod when their boss tells them they’re “natural supersalesmen” or when she explains, “[y]ou can convince anyone of anything if you set your mind to it.”

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    Fast forward to 1964: Men wave signs protesting the Port Authority’s seizing land to build the World Trade Center. Not far from the protest, Jaffe rescues tin-tiara-sporting Pauline Moreau, a prostitute. In a gesture of sisterhood, she hires her to organize the office files. A figure of social scorn, Pauline, notwithstanding, is “proud . . . tough . . . [a] girl who refuses to think of herself as vulnerable.” Maggie assumes Jaffe picks Pauline because she’s looking “for the one who would take full advantage of a fresh start.” Pauline is the single mother of Sonia, a child who, despite her limp, her tendency to drool, and her low IQ, brings her mother joy. Maggie, too, falls in love with the child. If, in Jaffe’s eyes, Pauline is clearly worth saving, Maggie can hardly refuse her boss’s request that she befriend Pauline. In the summer of 1974, Pauline goes away for the weekend, leaving Sonia with Maggie. When she doesn’t return, Maggie takes on Sonia’s care, even though the girl’s presence turns off potential suitors. As weeks pass, however, with no sign of Pauline, Maggie notifies the police.

    Fast forward again, this time to 1988. A fire rages at the upstate foundry of Alumacore, the plant that supplied the aluminum for the World Trade Center. Nearby, Bob Whittaker, the managing director, has built a luxurious aluminum mansion he shares with his wife and a stepson full of “socialist ideas.” Engaged to a woman whose father died poisoned by Alumacore, the son rails against the evils of industrial pollution. The soil has been contaminated, causing the displaced Mohawks to demand reparation for the damage done to their tribal lands.

    Whittaker, it turns out, has never been anything but selfish. Once, when she was 17, Pauline had worked for him: “[T]his girl who has been unwanted for as long as she can remember can’t be blamed if her first thought when her boss makes advances is What can I get out of this?”

    Throughout, questions multiply. Where is Pauline? Who is Sonia’s father? What is the role of Alumacore in the World Trade Center? Why are there mutant amphibians beneath the waters surrounding the plant? And how can the exemplary Jaffe justify using her PR skills to promote the safety of the Towers when warned of structural problems?

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    Moving though these increasingly gripping pages, the intersecting plots converge, resulting in conflagrations personal, political, industrial. The Twin Towers fall. The world changes. Yet its citizens still fail to grasp Lee Jaffe’s lesson: “When we forget to ask questions, we make mistakes.” This eloquent novel manages, without being polemical, to reflect the sad way we live now and seems tragically apt in light of such dire ongoing events as climate-change denial, sexual harassment suits, and the Grenfell Tower fire.

    CAREERS FOR WOMEN

    By Joanna Scott

    Little, Brown, 304 pp., $26

    Mameve Medwed has published five novels, many essays and reviews, and lives in Cambridge. She can be reached at mameve@mamevemedwed.com.