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the Complete Review
the complete review - biographical


The Receptionist

Janet Groth

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To purchase The Receptionist

Title: The Receptionist
Author: Janet Groth
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2012
Length: 229 pages
Availability: The Receptionist - US
The Receptionist - UK
The Receptionist - Canada
The Receptionist - India
  • An Education at The New Yorker

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Our Assessment:

B : solid personal memoir; revealing about self, less so about The New Yorker

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 24/6/2012 David L. Ulin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/9/2012 Abigail Meisel
Publishers Weekly . 9/4/2012 .
The Washington Post . 20/8/2012 Heller McAlpin
The Washington Times . 5/10/2012 Marion E. Rodgers

  From the Reviews:
  • "Groth can be charmingly offhanded: anecdotal, gently gossipy, although she goes out of her way not to reveal anything too intimate. This reticence, she suggests, may be what held her back as a writer, a point given unintended resonance by the tone of her reflections here." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Groth’s memoir reads like "Page Six" for English majors." - Abigail Meisel, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Revelatory dispatches from 21 years as a receptionist at the New Yorker -- 1957 to 1978 -- expose more about Groth’s own sense of writerly inadequacy in that pre-feminist era than about the famous writers she worked for. (...) (T)he simmering subtext to this deeply reflective, rueful memoir is the question why she did not advance in two decades at the magazine." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Readers looking for juicy tales of the quirky denizens of West 43rd Street will find a few (.....) Much of the book, however, concerns her extracurricular rather than professional life (.....) Ultimately, it’s not her sexual saga but her evocation of the Mad Men working environment that makes Groth’s memoir interesting." - Heller McAlpin, The Washington Post

  • "I wish there had been more of a balance between her vivid and perceptive observations of the luminaries at the New Yorker and less repetitious details regarding the bounders and cads. Nonetheless, this is an engrossing memoir, written with clarity, honesty, humor and humility, by a talented woman" - Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, The Washington Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Subtitled An Education at The New Yorker, and with a cover-design reminding of a cover of the magazine, Janet Groth's memoir, The Receptionist, is certainly being marketed as an insider's look at the venerable magazine, where Groth worked from 1957 to 1978. It begins with Midwestern gal Groth, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, heading to the big city -- and getting her not-quite-big-break after an interview with E.B.White: she lands the job on The New Yorker's eighteenth floor, a relatively quiet one of mainly writers' offices, and -- "with the exception of one six-month stint in the art department" -- that's the position she remains (stuck) in. One of the things she asks herself is why she didn't or wasn't able to advance at the magazine -- but there's little description of her ambitiously trying to climb up the corporate ladder (over her twenty year stay she submits all of three pieces for publication, and seems all the while more focused on continuing her studies and getting further degrees).
       The book begins immersed in The New Yorker: after the introductory chapter, the next three each focus on three significant figures associated with the magazine, and whom she got to know more closely: John Berryman, who proposed to her regularly for a while; Joseph Mitchell, with whom she regularly went eating and drinking; and Muriel Spark, whom she also got to know more closely and remained in touch with after her time at The New Yorker. These are interesting personal reminiscences about literary figures presumably of interest to The New Yorker-fans -- but after these chapters Groth focuses more on herself.
       Much of the rest of the book takes place outside the confines of The New Yorker, as Groth recounts her various close relationships; there's also an interesting section on the time when she had a black roommate. The Receptionist turns out to be the account of 'an education', but relatively little of that takes place at or having to do with The New Yorker. The focus also is very much on her early years on the job and in the city: while not strictly chronological -- chapters cover a broad range of time: the one on Spark from their meeting in 1961 to their last, in the early 2000s -- the larger order of the book is, and more than halfway through the book we're still only in 1960.
       Groth's self-analysis (helped along by years of actual psychotherapy) is a modestly interesting account of a young woman coming into her own and figuring out her life and ambitions -- and, especially, her relationships with men. It takes her quite a while until she finds an appropriate relationship (though even here there is a considerable age difference between her and her partner), but then she seems to have had rather low expectations about what men found in her:

I was five feet seven, had a 36-26-36 figure, and wore my hair in a twelve-inch blond ponytail. What more did a man need to know ? So he loved me before he knew me
       So it's a pretty rocky path until she has it all figured out -- but at least she's willing to experience a lot along the way, and that in happening 1960s New York, so for those who are interested in this sort of finding-oneself story there's a decent amount of color here.
       Disappointingly, there's surprisingly little about any intellectual growth. Groth does mention a variety of literary discussions, some of some interest, but her academic pursuits, as she continued her studies for all those years -- and, for some of them, was apparently also teaching at Vassar -- get short and no shrift. She might as well have been taking accounting courses: all it seems to amount to is an attempt to get a degree that will allow her to change careers (as it then does).
       As far as The New Yorker-gossip goes, she sprinkles some in throughout, but often it amounts to little more than name-dropping:
When J.D.Salinger needed to find the office Coke machine (there wasn't one), I was the girl he asked. When Woody Allen got off the elevator on the wrong floor -- about every other time -- I was the girl who steered him up two floors where he needed to be.
       So, yes, there are disappointingly few good insider stories or revelations about The New Yorker here (which, again, is fine -- except that the book is being very much sold as ... An Education at The New Yorker).
       Groth does note that even if she was stuck in her position, she did appreciate the:
way it expanded to allow me to try on half a dozen or so alternate lives.
       And, indeed, this is a memoir packed with variety -- Groth tries out and experiences a great deal (in New York and abroad; The New Yorker was very generous in the amount of time she could take off, and in subsidizing some of her adventures).
       Groth writes well, and she does convey how she changed from desperate-to-escape-her-childhood girl to someone happily in a relationship. It remains a selective account -- there's little sense of how she came to make the transition to teacher, or even why she was driven to do that, for example -- and there's only so much insight into The New Yorker culture itself, but it's a solid memoir -- as far as memoirs go. (Groth writes about an early stab at fiction, but then choosing to abandon it; as someone who would choose fiction over factual account (and, especially, memoir) every time, I'm disappointed she didn't reshape the rich material into a novel; I can't imagine that it wouldn't have worked better.)
       Groth returns to the question of why she was 'stuck' in the same position for twenty-one years near the end of her book again -- but it seems pretty clear: everyone seems to have been pretty comfortable with the arrangement, and it seems to have worked out well enough for all concerned, Groth included. (Indeed, it doesn't seem much of a question at all -- beyond the silly assumption that with seniority one is apparently supposed to 'rise' in whatever organization one is employed in.)
       There's probably enough about a number of figures from The New Yorker to satisfy die-hard fans and make the book worth their while (though they'll also find themselves frustrated that there isn't more), and The Receptionist is a decent memoir of a woman experiencing the big city to the fullest in the 1960s, and of (painfully slowly) finding herself -- but that's pretty much it. (As someone with pretty much no respect for the memoir-genre -- I only picked this up in the hopes of The New Yorker-insight -- that's not even close to enough, but the general reading public seems to have a much higher tolerance for/interest in such personal accounts, and, quite well written, it should certainly satisfy those who like that kind of stuff.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 June 2012

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The Receptionist: Reviews: Janet Groth: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Janet Groth worked at The New Yorker, and taught at various universities.

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© 2012 the complete review

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