I was very excited to find out that Betty Smith had written a sequel in all but name to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and checked it out from the library almost as soon as I’d finished Tree. Initially, I really enjoyed Joy in the Morning, but it quickly turned into a sloggingly-paced torture test instead of a riveting page-turner as Tree had been.
It starts in June 1927, as young, ridiculously naïve lovebirds Annie and Carl are waiting outside a judge’s office in Michigan. Annie is 18 and Carl is 20, but they’re in wub, and that trumps everything, including their complete lack of experience with the real world and any sort of budgeting or planning for how they’re going to afford their own household and living expenses. Carl is a controlling, chauvinist jerk, and Annie is a complete doormat. I never got any sense of chemistry or love between then.
It was painfully obvious, through the entire book, that these stupid lovebirds basically only got married so young and quickly for the usual reason in the pre-Pill era—to have sex and live together with society’s okay. Carl tries to rape Annie on a veranda shortly after their joke marriage ceremony, ripping her blouse off, and she just accepts this instead of getting the hell away from this crazed horndog. Oh boo-hoo, poor baby Carl can’t stand waiting a little bit longer to have their rented room/new home available so he can finally release his sexual tension. That’s so much more important than respecting the woman he supposedly loves enough to marry!
There’s a flashback to the first time Annie went over to Carl’s house in Brooklyn, when she was 15 and he was 17, and Carl was leaking red flags even then. He staged a scene to make it look to his mother like he and Annie were making out on his bed, and of course, Carl’s mom believes her saintly son and decries Annie as some immoral slut who was doing that all by herself. Carl’s mom is a huge slut-shamer, and is convinced they only got married because Annie was knocked up. Annie’s mom is also convinced of this.
These women are not only self-hating and completely bought into the oppressive, ridiculous, overwhelming sexual double standard of the era, but also really bad with math. When Annie does get pregnant, they’re still convinced she’s only belatedly “confessing.” Yeah, then explain why she had her baby in September 1928, 15 freaking months after she got married! Annie’s mom is going on about how she shouldn’t take the baby out in public for awhile, so people won’t guess it’s “premature.” Do these idiots not realize how long gestation takes in humans?!
Carl hates condoms and only uses them because they can’t afford a kid (a point which eventually becomes moot anyway). Oh, poor baby! It’s so difficult to go to the pharmacist and buy some condoms, put them on, take them off after sex, and then throw them away! It’s not like it’s a lot more difficult to raise a baby! And if he cares so much about saving money, why the hell is he always smoking his disgusting cigarettes for only a few puffs? Oh, right, that’s not his concern because his doormat wife is the one always buying the cancer sticks.
Annie is such a huge doormat. I was unable to root for her at any point, though I felt really sorry for her, a victim of slut-shaming (a phrase which I have very mixed feelings about, but feel is accurate big-time in this book), married only so she could have sex without scandal, pregnant before she’s ready, subject to birth-rape and a chauvinistic OB, unable to go to school as a real student, having a (male) doctor chosen for her behind her back, basically a little kid playing at grownup and unable and unwilling to advocate for herself. Even by 1920s standards, she was extremely passive and unenlightened.
Annie refers to sex between a married couple as “the act of sin.” WTF? In what culture or religion is sex considered SIN even when the couple is married?! And Carl describes Annie as a sexual wildcat, this hot tamale in bed in spite of her passive, little girl demeanor in public. No, Carl, it never happens like that. You don’t go from timid, ignorant virgin to wild, adventurous, experienced sexual wildcat that quickly. Learning how to be good in bed takes time, particularly when you’ve been raised to think of sex as sinful and were terrified of consummating your own marriage initially.
Annie’s OB was so horrible I’m saving his idiocy and bullying for a separate post!
Everything just happens for them—free classes for Annie to audit, her silly play being chosen for publication, money, jobs, and places to stay from the Dean and local friends. They never really descend into the depths of poverty, though we know that hard times are only a few months ahead at the book’s end, since it ends in May 1929. There’s never any black moment or dramatic midway point. Just some boring scenes recounting all their fights, housekeeping, conversations, and shopping trips.
And since it’s an unofficial sequel to Tree (albeit set a decade later), with so many similarities between Annie and Francie, it feels kind of uncomfortable to see some of that history being rewritten. Which book’s account should we believe? Was the much-older stepfather a great guy who helped to take the family out of poverty, or was he some creepy child-molester? Did the author leave home to get away from the pedo stepfather, or did she really want to further her education? Was the mother an essentially good woman, albeit a product of her time, who made a lot of sacrifices for her children, or was she some hateful, slut-shaming witch without any real love for her daughter? Did she or didn’t she have a happy childhood in spite of the poverty?