The Subway Girls

Written by Susie Orman Schnall
Review by Helene Williams

This fast-paced novel takes readers to 1949 New York City, where young women angled to get into typing pools at prestigious firms and dreamed of more than marriage and children. Charlotte Friedman is one of those women; she’s nearly finished college, has a steady boyfriend, and is passionate about an advertising career. Her family, and the companies she’s applied to, aren’t as enthusiastic about her ideas, however, and with no job offers in sight, Charlotte finds herself forced to work in her father’s hardware store. When a friend submits Charlotte’s photograph to the Miss Subways contest and she is invited to interview, Charlotte realizes this may be her way out of her daily drudgery.

Fast forward seventy years, and we meet Olivia Harrison, an ambitious young woman in advertising in New York City. She desperately needs to land the account with the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) to save her job; when she reads about the 1940s Miss Subways campaign, she starts scheming to create a reunion of the winners. After some research and a little luck, she finds one—Charlotte, in the apartment next door.

There are some emotional twists and turns involving Charlotte’s grandson Ben and Olivia’s boss, Matt, that help drive the story forward. This is a fast summer read, perfect for a day in the park or at the beach. While some of the characters, such as Charlotte, are warm and believable, others, such as Matt, are single-dimension stereotypes. The New York of yesterday is both glamorous and downtrodden, but the contemporary characterization of it is far less engaging, and Schnall’s use of overwrought similes is grating at times. That said, the narrative based on an actual advertising campaign will pull you along to find out what happens next.