On Liberated Women Looking for Love

Elisa Gonzalez in The Paris Review:

I became aware of Advancing Paul Newman, Eleanor Bergstein’s 1973 debut novel, through Anatole Broyard’s dismissive review, which I came across in some undirected archival wandering. His grating condescension spurred me to read the novel—one of the best minor rebellions I’ve ever undertaken. (Bergstein is best known for writing the movie Dirty Dancing.) “This is the story of two girls, each of whom suspected the other of a more passionate connection with life,” she writes of the protagonists, best friends Kitsy and Ila. The romance of their friendship holds together everything else: trips to Europe to collect experiences (which, of course, often disappoint), becoming or failing to become writers, love affairs and marriages and divorces, their idealistic campaigning for the anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968. But Advancing Paul Newman is not simply a story of friendship, albeit one between two complicated women. The book is also gorgeously deranged and witty, told in fragments and leaps. “Don’t find me poignant, you ass,” Kitsy snaps at her ex when he happens upon her eating alone in a restaurant. After bad sex in Italy, she says matter-of-factly, “This was a good experience because now I know what it feels like to have my flesh crawl.” Ila is “glorious when in love, undistinguished when not in love,” and sleeps with two men on the day of Kitsy’s wedding. “There were reasons.”

When she has a story accepted by The New Yorker, the proofs are returned with only one sentence intact: “Madam, the gentleman across the aisle is staring at my upper thighs.” The novel’s title comes from one of Kitsy and Ila’s duties in the McCarthy campaign: to arrive in advance at Paul Newman’s public appearances on behalf of McCarthy. They act as political fluffers, exciting the crowd and leaving for the next event just as Newman’s car pulls up. (Spoiler: they never meet him.) “Why in the world are you doing that, Miss Bergstein?” Broyard asked, frustrated, in his review. I think I know: the search for a passionate connection with life is chaotic; the lives of young women encompass more than a man thinks they should.  

More here.