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'Tomorrow Will Be Better': Betty Smith's 'Rediscovered' Novel Is A Genuine Treasure

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A just reprinted novel from 1948 by Betty Smith has a title that seems perfect for the present. It's called "Tomorrow Will Be Better." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says that optimistic title isn't the only thing to recommend this novel. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I think Philip Roth should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but I don't think everything he wrote was prize worthy. Exhibit A - "The Breast," his 1972 Kafkaesque novel where the male protagonist morphs into a giant mammary gland. So when I saw the phrase a rediscovered classic slapped onto a new edition of an old novel by Betty Smith, I was understandably skeptical. There's usually a reason why the forgotten work of a famous author has been forgotten. Betty Smith is revered, of course, for "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn," her 1943 semiautobiographical novel about young Francie Nolan growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the early years of the 20th century.

For those of us who proudly call ourselves native New Yorkers, "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" is our very own outer borough epic. Generations of readers, whatever their origins, have rightly regarded the novel as a tribute to working-class grit and the vitality of the city. "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" was Smith's debut. She wrote three more novels that disappeared, but "Tomorrow Will Be Better," published in 1948, turns out to be one of those rare cases of a forgotten novel that really does deserve to be exhumed. The very things that made it an awkward follow-up to its beloved predecessor - its cynicism about class mobility and its depiction of sexual dissatisfaction in marriage - make it more intriguing now. Smith was never a sentimentalist. Alcoholism, overwork, poverty and the dangers of the street are everyday facts of life in "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn." But that novel highlights Francie's youthful resilience and ends with the vision of her world opening up to college and beyond.

"Tomorrow Will Be Better," as its title suggests, also dangles the possibility of wider opportunities in front of its go-getter heroine, Margy Shannon. But by story's end, Margy has been around the block a few times, and she knows that odds are good she may well be stuck there. When the novel opens, 17-year-old Margy is walking around aimlessly by herself on a cold Saturday night in 1920s Brooklyn because she doesn't want to go back to the dumpy apartment she shares with her parents. With two years of high school behind her, Margy now works at a catalog order-mail house near the waterfront. She's walking around, hoping that a boy she knew from school, Frankie Malone, will step out of his building. Margy thinks to herself that Frankie wasn't much, but he was better than nobody. He would have served until a real boyfriend came along. Alas, that real boyfriend never materializes. And eventually, Margy and Frankie settle for each other.

Among her many gifts, Smith was a clear-eyed chronicler of marriages cracking under the pressure of poverty. Here, that familiar stressor is amplified by sexual incompatibility. In a halting confrontation scene near the end of the story, Margy acknowledges to herself that Frankie is mixed up about certain things. Given that there's barely any language available in the 1920s, or indeed in the 1940s when Smith was writing this novel, for these conventional working-class characters to discuss such matters makes "Tomorrow Will Be Better" a singular literary depiction of sexual sadness.

The life that's lacking in the Molone's marriage, however, is to be found out on the sidewalks and in Margy's workplace. "Tomorrow Will Be Better" is a dynamic depiction of everyday life in '20s New York City beyond flappers and speakeasies. Just as the Ashcan School of New York artists captured the beauty of the metropolitan mundane in their paintings, Smith does so in her descriptions of kids playing a game of statues or, as they say, statures on the pavement; neighbors across the alley yelling at Margy's arguing parents, shut your windows or shut your traps; and in the catalog house where Margy works before her marriage, there's this giddy scene at quitting time. The small washroom was filled with girls who stood before the mirrors, powdering, outlining their lips in moist, gleaming reds and running 10 cent combs through their hair. They watched the flash of their teeth when they smiled, rolled their eyes so as not to lose sight of themselves as they turned their heads sideways. The collective energy of the city pushes back against the disappointments that Smith's characters endure.

So is "Tomorrow Will Be Better" really a rediscovered classic? In the Brooklynese of Smith's characters, I'd say, nah. Classics are for time to decide. "Tomorrow Will Be Better" is more like something that's put out on trash day that turns out to be a genuine treasure.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Tomorrow Will Be Better" by Betty Smith. If you'd like to see Maureen's picks for the best books of the year, go to our website freshair.npr.org. And if you'd like to browse more than 380 titles recommended by NPR staff and critics, visit the Book Concierge at npr.org/bestbooks.

Coming up, Kevin Whitehead will review a newly issued 1971 live recording by tenor saxophonist George Coleman. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE COUNT BASIE ORCHESTRA'S "GOOD SWING WENCESLAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.