The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker by Janet Groth


The Receptionist is a book that I’ve wanted to read since it was released a few years ago. Anything set in Manhattan in the sixties always appeals to me and to have it set in the literary world is especially enticing. I was gathering books for a Mad Men display at work and this title kept popping up on various book lists online – instead of putting it on the display I decided to read it last weekend.

Unfortunately, it was somewhat of a disappointment, I think because of my expectations. It isn’t so much a chronicle of the author’s 21 years working at The New Yorker as an exploration of one young woman’s midcentury identity crisis, which, though interesting, isn’t quite what I thought the book was going to be about.

Janet Groth was raised in the Midwest with an alcoholic father and an aloof and beautiful mother. As soon as she finished college in Minnesota in 1957 she hightailed it to New York and, through a connection with E.B. White, secured a position as receptionist on the 18th floor of The New Yorker. There she stayed for the next two decades, assisting the magazine’s staff writers and becoming a part of their lives by babysitting and housesitting for them and socializing with them after work.

The book is not laid out chronologically, instead it contains a series of chapters that move back and forth between detailing the author’s personal struggles and romantic entanglements to profiles of people she met at the magazine. The chapters that focus on her own story slowly overtake the book. I do like reading coming-of-age tales, but as the book progressed I missed the chapters that featured the magazine or people she met through it, such as her chapter on Muriel Spark (which is wonderful and worth reading the book for).

Overall, this is a fast read that has very descriptive writing, with some lovely chapters on the writers and editors of The New Yorker. However, it also has too many angsty chapters that were not quite unique enough to capture my interest.

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