(Excerpt courtesy of Texas Review)
Three college friends from the 50s blaze their own path in love and work, braving the stifling conventions of the age, and anticipating the social thaw that would arrive ten years later. These “wild girls” pay heavy penalties for living against the grain, but over the years rebound and re-set their course, drawing strength from their friendship. The novel follows them from an elite northeastern college, to Paris with Allen Ginsberg, to New York’s avant-garde scene in the early sixties, to a “cottage” in Newport, to the slopes of Zermatt, to Long Island’s Gold Coast, as it celebrates the nimbleness and nerve of women who defied an entire culture to invent their own journey.
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Columbia Alumni Arts Newsletter Review
Dancing Past the Beats: A Woman’s Journey in the 50’s
Q & A with Erica Abeel
‘Wild Girls’ Follows Women Rebels of the 1950s
All About the Books with Janet Squires
Praise & Reviews
Oprah magazine features WILD GIRLS in its “10 Titles To Pick Up Now” in its issue of January 2017. “This libidinous period novel follows three budding feminists through an elite women’s college, the New York art scene, and Allen Ginsberg’s bed, as they redefine womanhood for themselves and future generations.”
“Finally, an examination of the female mind at the end of the Eisenhower era. The end of men’s hats and ladies’ garter belts. The pill displacing the diaphragm, and lust unleashed. A fine piece of literary anthropology.”
“Erica Abeel’s “Wild Girls” follows Brett, Audrey, and Julia, friends who meet at Foxleigh — an amalgam of Barnard and Smith — as they negotiate the changing landscape of a woman’s place in America from the 1950s through the early 2000s.
Ms. Abeel, a master of the sardonic voice, sets a scene in which coeds are clustered in a “dorm’s common room for a bull session on the meaning of life. . . . Someone produced, to a chorus of groans, a box of Sara Lee brownies, and discussion shifted to the nature of despair in Kierkegaard’s ‘The Sickness Unto Death.’ ”
Brett, Audrey, and Julia are disparaging of girls “with careful hair and careful bodies,” girls like Lyndy Darling, who viewed marriage as the ultimate goal:
“Brett sometimes thought of Lyndy’s crowd and her own trio as two distinct species peaceably co-habiting the same savannah. She and the friends were warriors pitted against everything the [Lyndys] wanted; everything the world insisted you want: marriage, three weeks after graduation to a fellow who worked at General Motors, end of story. [Brett’s] little band would not fall into line so fast, oh no; they’d flex their talent in some gleaming, if amorphous future almost certainly involving the arts.”
Of course, in the world of fiction, anyone who sets out with such good intentions is bound to veer off course.
Ms. Abeel’s prose is snappy, full of wit. The sentences, even when the characters aren’t speaking, read like the quick back-and-forth dialogue of movies such as “The Apartment” and “How to Marry a Millionaire.” The book is peppered with wry observations about the hypocrisies of men, of women, and of the consequences of attempting to carve out a career as a woman in a man’s world. Audrey, an aspiring author who’s just sold her first book, comes to the conclusion that “Men . . . used language as a kind of test drive to see how things might play out, but with no commitment to making them actually happen. That’s why there were no female Einsteins, Audrey thought irritably; women wasted their best years trying to decode male language. She knocked off an article for Mademoiselle called ‘Manspeak.’ ”
After the three graduate, Brett goes to Paris to ingratiate herself with the Beats. The intimate way Ms. Abeel writes about this time period speaks to the author’s personal experience: She was there. At first, Brett worships Allen Ginsberg — whose sexual fluidity gives Brett hope that he might, one day, worship her back — but gradually her reverence is tempered by reality. “Actually, Brett had more than once wondered how, exactly, a few writer friends — Allen, Gregory, Burroughs, Kerouac — comprised a ‘generation.’ They seemed more a group of loyal buddies than a literary movement. In fact, they seemed like each other’s wives. Allen came on like a den mother, hawking their manuscripts, tending to meals.”
In Ms. Abeel’s telling, the Beats are mortal: men who bungle their way through life like the rest of the population; men who, in Brett’s interpretation, treat women as nothing more than “footnotes . . . Gregory and Cassady screwed them, Burroughs shot them in the head. And Allen? In his roll call of all that was holy women hadn’t made the cut. Only by an act of concentration worthy of Rodin’s Thinker could Allen remember women existed at all.” Brett leaves Paris, loses touch with Allen, and moves on, as one does when one has tried something and found it not to her liking.
The women enter their late 20s with a sense that they haven’t fulfilled the promise of their younger, idealistic selves. Brett says to her performance artist roommate, “Listen, I know you think I’ve, well, sold out — but not everyone has the guts to be an artist. I don’t have your vision, your drive, your . . . tenacity. Maybe I did once, but then it dissipates, like with most people. I no longer have dreams — I have a game plan. Get my Ph.D. and pay my way by living in books.” While not the most stirring proclamation, it’s a raw and true admission. People don’t want to give up on their dreams, but sometimes it’s necessary in order to survive.
Over the years there are jealousies and disagreements among the three friends, but through it all they stick together. “Wild Girls” is a realistic portrayal of the lives of women who don’t become trailblazers, who instead persevere, adapt, and remain whole.
Late in life — following deaths, divorces, misguided affairs — they find themselves hard at work on their individual creative pursuits. They have the flat in Paris, the apartment in Manhattan, the summer house in the Hamptons complete with lunches at Bobby Van’s. Their rewards. In the 1990s, the trio find themselves living in a world that Allen Ginsberg “would scarcely have recognized when he set out, hungry-eyed and geeky and desperate to be loved. A world [Brett] and her friends now inhabit like immigrants lacking language skills, but gamely winging it.”
The novel is written in the close third person, but shifts perspectives among all the women. The book begins and ends with Brett’s point of view, but nearly equal time is given to Audrey and Julia. Ms. Abeel plays with the chronology when, in the later third of the novel, she skips ahead 18 years to find the women middle-aged. A smart choice — the technique livens the narrative as we meet the characters older, wiser, with more disappointments in their rearviews.
Another jump comes at the very end. The women, now in their 70s, are gathered at Audrey’s cottage in the Hamptons. Summing up the moral, Brett says, “I’ll take humdrum happiness. . . . And the compromises, and petty self-seeking, and all that life that must go on. Audrey, what a luxury, d’you realize? To have to worry about fixing the roof. Isn’t it marvelous?””
—East Hampton Star
“Three college friends from the 50s blaze their own path in love and work, braving the stifling conventions of the age, and anticipating the social thaw that would arrive ten years later. These “wild girls” pay heavy penalties for living against the grain, but, over the years, they rebound and re-set their course, drawing strength from their friendship. “Wild Girls” by Erica Abeel follows these three from an elite northeastern college, to Paris with Allen Ginsberg, to New York’s avant-garde scene in the early sixties, to a mansion in Newport, to the slopes of Zermatt, to Long Island’s Gold Coast, as it celebrates the nimbleness and vitality of women who defied an entire culture to forge their own journey. A fully absorbing and unfailingly entertaining read from beginning to end, “Wild Girls” is especially recommended for community library General Fiction collections.
—The Midwest Book Review
“With literary finesse, the novel leaps through its wild moments with ease.”
“…Laced with gleeful, biting commentary. Toward her three protagonists, she is unsparing and compassionate in perfect proportion. Those who haven’t tried her yet—women and men of all ages—should give her a try.”
“The Wild Girls will resonate with anyone who witnessed the cultural revolution of the 1950s and 60s, or wishes that they had. I loved it.”
“While their mothers were in the kitchen preparing Jello molds, their daughters, the “wild girls” of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, were breaking free of old conventions and forging new paths to romance, adventure, and professional fulfillment. No one knows this journey better than Erica Abeel, who was a “wild girl” herself. In her dazzling new novel, she tells a captivating tale of college friends—one reminiscent of Yoko Ono—whose quests take them from the glamour of the New York publishing scene, to the Paris of the Beats, to the watering holes of the wealthy and ambitious, and beyond.”
“Wild Girls grabs the reader on the first page and never lets go. Its prose sparkles with wit and vitality and the vivid imagery of a unique time.”
—JO ANN MILLER, former Editorial Director Basic Books
“A very funny, rueful and accurate recapture of things past. Erica Abeel’s stylish prose delivers surprises and pleasurable shocks of recognition in every paragraph.”
—Philip Lopate, author of Portraits Inside my Head
“Erica Abeel writes with an insider’s authority and great charm about her “wild girls,” who come vividly to life in this intelligent, compelling novel.”
—Hilma Wolitzer, author of An Available Man: A Novel
“Young American women defying cultural expectations and inventing their own lives is one of my favorite subjects — and I am not alone. Erica Abeel’s WILD GIRLS tells the delicious, page-turning story of three very different but equally thoughtful rebels from 1950s America, embarking on adventures that involve everyone from Allen Ginsburg to Yoko Ono … This book will bathe the reader in a time and place in which female self-invention was never more important, exhilarating, and challenging. With feminism a passionate concern of today’s young female journalists and Hollywood actresses and directors, I can hardly think of a timelier read.”
—Sheila Weller, author of GIRLS LIKE US: CAROLE KING, JONI MITCHELL, CARLY SIMON
With Wild Girls , Erica Abeel tells a story very much in the tradition of Mary McCarthy, Rona Jaffe and yes, even Jacqueline Susann. What her smart and accessible novel shows is the underside of bohemianism: that it rarely has worked for women. Wild Girls brings us females who long for personal freedom, but who must struggle for it against both the mainstream and the counter-culture. This is the hidden story of the beats and the hipsters and its one worth telling.
—CLAUDIA DREIFUS, journalist, author
“Wild Girls is a novel about a few women rebels who came of age in the 50s with the Beats in Paris, Allen Ginsberg (when he was still sleeping with girls), and a Yoko Ono-based character in early 60s New York. More importantly, Erica Abeel IS a ‘Wild Girl’— she lived the life, these are her friends, and this is an insider’s peek into that world.”
—Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians
“Erica Abeel writes with the eye of Margaret Mead and the soul of Tolstoy. In stunning and electric prose she gives us captivating – thrillingly flawed – characters and we embrace them, even when it might be wiser to flee. Along the way, she shows us the brilliance and devastation of love; the hidden geometry of complicated marriages; and the interwoven force fields of deep friendships.”
—GRACE DANE MAZUR, author of Hinges
“Erica Abeel has written about the dilemmas that women face with wisdom, humor, and a wicked eye for the ironies of existence. Her message is timeless.”
—A Literary Vacation