Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber is simply a great read: the compelling adventures of an independent woman, out to earn the respect she deserves, single-handedly winning over her male colleagues, while raising her son on her own. Simple, little story? Absolutely not - this is 1913...
While this book could well make the case for being a feminist one, I did not feel this: there is still a fine line between emerging feminist thoughts and nostalgia for the traditional roles in society expressed by Emma McChesney, our heroine. I would just say it's a novel way ahead of its time: Her "adventures" could well have taken place in modern times, which made me wonder: if these descriptions apply today and the problems are still in existence today, what was the situation back in 1913? How could Emma, any Emma, survive, when even today women can still fail facing such challenges?
I liked that the book is split in chapters focusing on a type of adventure. I believe it gets us to know all facets of Emma's life, from the purely professional to the purely personal and all in between.
Emma has been now working for 10 years as a salesperson (to be politically correct) at a firm selling petticoats. She married young, divorced not too long afterwards and has been left on her own ever since to struggle for herself and her son, Jock.
We follow her as she makes her way across the country (in those days, there was no wireless communication, so everything was carried out on a person-to-person basis...). Emma has done it all, seen it all - that's why she sticks with a roast beef, medium: once you have witnessed all of life's ups and downs, you get to appreciate life's staples, the standard values that, though unexciting, will serve you very well and provide a much-needed cushion from the world's troubles.
"it's all very well to trifle with the little side-dishes at first, but there comes a time when you've got to quit fooling with the minced chicken, and the imitation lamb chops of this world, and settle down to plain, everyday, roast beef, medium. That other stuff may tickle your palate for a while, but sooner or later it will turn on you, and ruin your moral digestion"
The simile is spot-on and I really appreciated the simplicity with which Ferber can make her point. How many times have I declined the flavour of the month in whichever domain, because I know I can rely to the tried-and-tested values that will remain true for the future?
Emma has to deal with her male competitors, who do not expect her to last long (funny, given she outwits them all...). She has a "mentor" in her boss, who is the first to see through her and realise the potential she has. From then, everyone else is an obstacle Emma can surely tackle, over and over again:
"now, a man would -""But I'm not a man", interrupted Emma McChesney. "I'm only doing a man's work and earning a man's salary and demanding to be treated with as much consideration as you'd show a man"
And yes, we're still in 1913, however much this could be said in 2013 as well (the realisation that the novel is 100 years old just hit me - not much progress in this respect, eh?)
There is a favourable disposition vis-a-vis Emma. However much she's shown to struggle through life's adventures, she always manages to save the day and her composure:
Long practice had made her perfect in the art.
Her only weakness is her son, but this is a tough love - she's not scared to let him know what the truth is:
Your mother is a working woman, Jock. You don't like that idea, do yo? But you don't mind spending the money that the working woman provides you with, do you?
And, of course, among everything else, there is always a suspicion of a love interest... Be it her fellow salespersons who want to just have a good time during their visits to all these remote towns, to her new boss, who could have honest intentions (the ending is not revealed, so the jury's out on this!). But, Ferber is very good at keeping our interest alive throughout the pages: she know she has a lonely heroine and she knows we want her to find someone, and at every chance she gets, she just loves to play with this idea:
"Great, ain't it?" said a voice in the darkness. (Nay, reader. A woman's voice)
Emma will rise up the corporate ladder and ensure the company's future by innovative products - a relatively believable ending, not too exciting but remarkable nevertheless. This book was a very nice discovery, truly recommended for an insight into the makings of independent women...