A Very Good Life by Lynn Steward
Read an excerpt below
Although Lynn Steward’s debut novel, A Very Good Life, takes place in 1970s New York City, the emotional story transcends any period. Dana McGarry is living a privileged lifestyle of a well-heeled junior executive at B. Altman, a high end department store. With a storybook husband and a fairytale life, change comes swiftly and unexpectedly. Cracks begin to appear in the perfect facade. Challenged at work by unethical demands, and the growing awareness that her relationship with her distant husband is strained, Dana must deal with the unwanted changes in her life. Can she find her place in the new world where women can have a voice, or will she allow herself to be manipulated into doing things that go against her growing self-confidence?
A Very Good Life chronicles the perils and rewards of Dana’s journey, alongside some of the most legendary women of the twentieth century. From parties at Café des Artistes to the annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony, from meetings with business icons like Estée Lauder to cocktail receptions with celebrity guests like legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Steward’s intimate knowledge of the period brings to life a relatable story about a woman’s quest for independence.
A Very Good Life twice ranked #1 on Amazon’s list of 100 Top Free eBooks in Literary and Fiction
A Very Good Life Excerpt
Dana McGarry, her short blond hair stirred by a light gust of wind, stood on Fifth Avenue in front of the display windows of the B. Altman department store on the day after Thanksgiving, November, 1974. Dana, public relations and special events coordinator for the store, pulled her Brooks Brothers camel hair polo coat tighter around her slim, shapely frame. Shoppers hurried past her, huddled in overcoats as mild snow flurries coated the streets with a fine white powder. It was now officially Christmas season, and Dana sensed a pleasant urgency in the air as people rushed to find the perfect gift or simply meet a friend for lunch. The frenetic pace of life in Manhattan continued to swell the sidewalks, but pedestrians were more inclined to tender a smile instead of a grimace if they bumped into one another. Dana often told her friends that Christmas was a time when there was a temporary truce between true believers and grinches. As far as business was concerned, she was pleased to hear the cash registers of B. Altman singing their secular carols inside the store, but she also still believed that the holidays brought magic and balance, however briefly, into a world of routine and ten-hour workdays.
Balance? Dana smiled wistfully, for balance was becoming harder to achieve. She was only twenty-nine, but the pressures of life were already assaulting her mind and spirit in numerous ways. She tried to please multiple people in B. Altman’s corporate offices on a daily basis, not an easy task given that the seasoned professionals who were grooming her had various agendas, not all of which tallied with each other. And then there was her marriage to Brett McGarry, a litigator at a Wall Street law firm. Brett was as busy as she, and simultaneously attending to her career and the needs of her husband was sometimes difficult, if not downright burdensome. His needs? Well, “demands” would be a more accurate description of what Dana had to contend with. Although Brett didn’t overtly order Dana around, he informed her of what he would or would not be able to do with her on any given day. His growing air of superiority was extremely subtle and couched in affable smiles that most of Dana’s friends could not accurately read.
Brett McGarry walked confidently into the offices of Davis, Konen and Wright on the thirty-seventh floor of 80 Broad Street. The address was in the heart of New York’s financial district, a suitable home for the powerhouse corporate law firm where Brett hoped to soon make partner. The imposing limestone edifice of the Art Deco building, with its many tiers of set-back facades, was near Battery Park, the Staten Island Ferry, the New York Stock Exchange, and other famous landmarks in lower Manhattan. Brett felt at ease in the financial district, and whenever he entered the area, he felt a spring in his step. This was where he belonged, and when it was time to have a drink with colleagues, he could walk to Fraunces Tavern, the Georgian-style building on nearby Pearl Street where General George Washington had bid the officers of the Continental Army a fond farewell at a dinner in his honor. On any given evening, one could find newsworthy faces at the tavern, and for Brett, scotch neat went down that much easier when at Fraunces.
“Good morning, Brett,” came a female voice from behind a secretary’s desk in the center of an office suite occupied by the firm’s litigators.
Startled, Brett jerked his head forward. He had expected to find only the cleaning staff shuffling through the hallowed offices on this Friday morning. The voice belonged to Janice Conlon, the firm’s new junior litigator. Brett stopped in his tracks and surveyed the five-foot-ten leggy blond dressed in tight jeans and an even tighter turtleneck covered by a brown distressed suede jacket. Long straight hair splashed across her shoulders, and her deep blue eyes gazed at Brett above high angular cheekbones.
Reading Group Guide
In order to explore the mind-set and motivation of the characters, many aspects of the plot and the ending are revealed. If you have not finished reading A Very Good Life, we suggest that you wait before reviewing the reader’s guide.
- Dana and Brett are both highly driven in their careers. How does this manifest during the course of the story? How does Dana’s approach to her work as public relations and special events coordinator for B. Altman differ from Brett’s drive for success as a litigator on Wall Street?
- Do you think Dana and Brett were ever a well-matched couple?
- Dana describes the corporate offices at her work as having “the ambience of a corporate cathedral, and the first time she stepped onto the floor years earlier, she had unconsciously lifted her right hand for a split second, as if to dip her fingers in a holy water font.” What does this say about her character?
- Do you think Dana is really committed to marriage or is it her religion and strong family background that makes her believe that she is?
- The Concolor fir is the catalyst for a great deal of turmoil within the McGarry marriage. From Brett backing out of the trip with Dana to his decision to replace it with a taller tree, the two fight about it constantly. Why was this tree such a big deal, and what did it represent?
- Why do you think Dana and Brett do not have children after eight years of marriage?
- A number of iconic women make cameos in A Very Good Life. They include art lecturer Rosamond Bernier, cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder, legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, and actress, producer, and social activist, Marlo Thomas. What do they add to the story? Is the timing of their appearances in any way relevant to Dana’s story and her inner development?
- What do you think of Virginia, Dana’s mother? Is Dana’s drive a result of her mother’s genes or a desire for her mother’s approval?
- Nina declares 1975 as International Women’s Year, telling Dana they will make great strides with regards to equality in the workplace, voting rights, marriage equality, and reproductive rights. Is Dana’s focus on a successful career influenced by the women’s movement, or simply her personal ambition?
- Discuss the impending nuptials of Johnny and Suzanne. Why is his father so upset about their marriage? Is it her religion, her WASPY background, or the fact that she is not Italian? Are you surprised that Johnny so quickly believes the findings in the report his father gives him? Is he relieved to have a reason to break the engagement? Is it because Johnny really doesn’t love Suzanne or does he want to please his father?
- At the country inn, Dana smiles when the proprietress translates the quote about the fireplace as “This corner of earth smiles for me beyond all others” and then decides to come back to the country with Brett the following month to celebrate his birthday. What about the country does Dana find so appealing? Do you think she will ever leave New York and move to country? Why or why not?
- Janice creates chaos at Dana’s neighborhood association meeting, when she defends prostitution and rejects the association’s petition to ban prostitutes from the Queens Midtown Tunnel. What do you make of her argument? What do these arguments say about her character? Does she truly believe this, or is she just trying to aggravate Dana as much as possible?
- What is it about Dana that Janice hates so much?
- Why do you think that even when Brett starts the affair with Janice, he often thinks it will not last and he will never leave Dana?
- Although Dana is upset by the order to rig the teen contest in Kim’s favor, she also bonds strongly to the girl, even viewing her as a daughter or a younger version of herself. What about Kim is so relatable to Dana? Is it Dana who serves as a mentor to Kim, or the other way around?
- Kim tells Dana about a poem called “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” summarizing “The narrator listens to a lecture filled with charts and numbers and diagrams and then goes outside to look at the beauty of the night sky and appreciates astronomy in a totally different way.” Why does she feel compelled to talk about this with Dana, and how does the poem reflect on the characters and events within A Very Good Life?
- Throughout the course of the story, how does Dana turn adversity into opportunity?
- How does Dana’s life—and her outlook on life—immediately change following her decision to file for divorce?
- Are you surprised by Brett’s reaction when Dana asks him for a divorce? Is he subconsciously relieved and did he want the divorce all along? Do you think he will continue to be amicable, or might he present problems for her later?
- Do you think Dana is destined to find both a happy marriage and a successful career, or might she ultimately have to choose? If forced to pick, which do you believe she will decide is more important?
“I always enjoyed business writing and, about three years ago, I started putting ideas on paper for a TV series. That led to creative writing and endless storytelling.” Lynn Steward interviewed by –The Book Connection
If you love women’s fiction and are a fan of strong female protagonists, I recommend you pick this one up. It won’t disappoint. –Book Reviews by Susan Keefe
Lynn Steward highlights nuances of 70s life in New York City that are rarely featured in books or in films set in that decade. It is a New York story told in New York style. –Ask a New Yorker
This earnest tribute to the ‘70s offers optimistic commentary on personal empowerment and larger-than-life characters. –Foreword Reviews
The story is well told by an author very familiar with the makings of the legal and fashion industries in New York. The places, settings, and intrigues make the novel interesting…. I found myself caught up in the story and wondering what will happen to Dana next. Will her Very Good Life continue? I look forward to reading about the next eight. -Book Loons
This is a good one to pack along to read on a flight or while hanging out at the beach this summer –Confessions of a Psychotic Housewife