Leonard Prize Reviews: ‘The Extra Woman’ by Joanna Scutts

By Jane Ciabattari

In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the John Leonard award for the first book in any genre that has been published in the US in 2017. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard reviews on promising first books. 
The John Leonard Prize is our annual award based on member nominations and chosen by a panel of member volunteers. Named for the longtime critic and NBCC co-founder, John Leonard, the prize is awarded for the best first book in any genre. Previous winners include: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013), Phil Klay's Redeployment (2014), Kristin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas (2015), and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016).

The Extra Woman by Joanna Scutts (Liveright) Reviewed by Jane Ciabattari, adapted from her Between the Lines column for BBC Culture.

When Marjorie Hillis, a Brooklyn preacher’s daughter, Vogue editor and budding self-help guru published the 1936 best-seller Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman, she “elevated the status of single women from pitiful ‘extras’ into glamorous and self-possessed ‘Live Aloners’,” writes Scutts, who calls Hillis's book “a paean to making your own choices, mixing your own cocktails, and learning to enjoy the company of men while not being afraid of losing it.” Among Hillis' bracing bits of advice: “You have got to decide what kind of a life you want and then make it for yourself.” Scutts's fresh and breezily written book uses Hillis’s work to cover several decades of social history, outlining the gradual shifts in attitudes from the Depression through to the war, the “throwback 1950s” and the dawn of the second wave of feminism. Hillis’s message resonates today: as Scutts puts it, Carrie Bradshaw, Bridget Jones, the girls of Girls and all their real-life counterparts owe Marjorie Hillis an unspoken debt. Scutts traces decades of change and explores the “Live-Aloner” lifestyle with acute observation and wit.