White Gloves & Rob Roys
Ilona Joy Saari
211th Street Books, 2017
There is a casualness to the tone of Ilona Joy Saari’s novel White Gloves & Rob Roys making it feel conversation in its telling. This trait also allows readers to find themselves deeply immersed in a story that if told in a different tone–perhaps one more strident or earnest–would turn readers off. This is the great success of Saari’s novel, her ability to keep readers engaged as she spins a purposeful tale without allowing them to slip away due to some personal quibble so to fully experience the story.
Ashley is a young journalist looking to make her mark. She writes lifestyle pieces with the ambition to move to more ‘serious’ reporting. While working on a piece about Schraffts Restaurant she encounters a group of women who are essentially lore-keepers. And Ashley listens. Spanning several decades from the early 1900s through the 1930’s and up to the ‘present’ of 1968, the women spearheaded by one Vi Wildling recount their experiences giving readers a vivid portrait of New York City, specifically Manhattan. In the telling, Ashley finds her own life being impacted as she ruminates on what she has heard in her interviews and strives to climb the career ladder.
Saari is able to cover major historical events such as the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire through the eyes of characters who lived through the cultural moment. In the process readers are also given details about places (hotels, bars, nightclubs, and restaurants) enlivening the story to make it feel not just realistic but as though the city itself is an animated, growing character alongside the protagonists. We realize what we are reading is the hard work of women struggling to establish themselves in a world that often changes (for the better) but still presents them with the same obstacles due to gender. It is immensely satisfying to see these women finally have their stories told and to another woman who will make them ‘real,’ that is seen, by recording and promulgating them. There is a shared sense of worth in this novel between its characters, which is a rare element in fiction.
White Gloves & Rob Roys patiently and deftly explores what it takes and what it means to be a working woman striving to be able to live independently. While we see ridiculous acts of gender discrimination change over time, the stories told reveal to us the battle to confront the larger sexist structure is ongoing and something united women across generations. And in the midst of this, readers are given murder mystery making the recollections all the more compelling. Saari’s prose is smooth, digestible, and articulate giving readers lucid images of the characters in the world, in the city, as well as deep depictions of their emotional states and internal lives.
About the Author
Ilona Joy Saari is a freelance writer who’s worked in many genres, from television/film to essayist to rock’n’roll press to political campaigns. She was a Deputy Press Secretary for a U.S. President, a press liaison for two Presidential conventions and has written many speeches for celebrities on the stump for presidential candidates and women’s issues. Her essays have been published in the NY Daily News and other newspapers across the country. Ilona is currently a columnist for the glossy magazine, Ojai Quarterly, and a contributor to Huffington Post. Her first novel, Freeze Frame, was published in 2012.