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The Winthrop Agreement


The Winthrop Agreement

There's no mystery involved in THE WINTHROP AGREEMENT, and the narrative is fairly straightforward as Alice Sherman Simpson takes us forward and backward in time right around the turn of the 20th century. The only mystery we might consider is how, over the past century, so much has changed in terms of technology and our lifestyles, yet so little has changed when it comes to our class prejudices and the chasm that exists between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us.

Fifteen-year-old Rivkah Milmanovitch leaves her native Lithuania to meet her new husband in America. What happens when she arrives in New York City, but there's no handsome husband there to greet her? Lottie Aarons, Rivkah’s friend from the Old Country, went to America with her husband. Rivkah finds Lottie only to discover that Lottie's husband also has absconded.

Lottie works as a seamstress in a factory, and Rivkah gets a job there as well. Sadly, the working conditions are cruel (the girls get money withheld from their earnings to pay for "their" sewing machines), the windows are kept shut even on the hottest summer days, and there is no fresh air. They work 12-hour days for a pittance.

"This engaging novel could just as well have been set in the present day in terms of the immigrant experience and class divisions. It's not only a pleasure to read; it's thoughtful and filled with likable characters."

Even though Rivkah and her husband were together for only a week before he left for America to "prepare the way for her," she got pregnant. When she has a girl, she moves into a tiny one-room apartment to give Lottie her privacy. Lottie had been studying bookkeeping to get out of the factory and ends up working for the wealthy Winthrop family. At this point, the story turns to Rivkah's daughter, Miriam. Mimi, as her family and friends call her, loves fabrics and gowns. As she grows up, she has dreams of her own.

Unfortunately for Mimi, at 15 she meets the disreputable younger Winthrop brother, Frederick, who seduces her. Simpson clearly shows that Mimi was lucky; with her mother being hospitalized and dying, he was unable to take things further. Through some unsettling recounting of his sick childhood pursuits, we quickly realize that Frederick is a psychopath in the making. He starts with killing small animals but soon progresses to other creatures. He has absolutely no morals and gets much pleasure from stealing from his mother, who has despised him almost since his birth. Perhaps she sensed his depravity even then.

Rivkah has worked nonstop to provide for herself and Mimi, but that has left little time or energy to be a loving mother. Lottie has helped and is there to give Mimi affection. When Rivkah dies, Lottie and Mimi remain close. And when Mimi gets pregnant by Frederick, Lottie is again there to assist, although Lottie isn’t aware at that time who the father is. In fact, Mimi has never known his last name.

But when Mimi is evicted from her apartment, everything comes together. The older, kinder Winthrop brothers recognize her name as the young teenager Frederick had paraded through his hotel (much to the horror of its residents). When Lottie tells them about Mimi's baby, they realize who the seducer was --- their degenerate younger brother. Worried about their reputation, their philanthropy and their good standing in high society, they make Mimi a very generous offer to keep her and the child comfortable. In return, she must never disclose who the father is.

However, the good Winthrop brothers do more than just give Mimi some money. They give her a scholarship to a trade school to learn about sewing and running a business. They also make sure that her son, Matthew, will attend good schools and have an excellent education. Mimi is able to use her talent and training to create a business as a clothing designer, and her connection to the Winthrops gives her access to the wealthiest members of high society.

THE WINTHROP AGREEMENT effectively conveys how difficult it is when those who are brought up struggling to survive eventually experience the ultra-wealthy in their environment. Mimi is clever, but it's easy for her to mistake warmth for friendship. She comes to realize that while those who utilize her couture services will flatter her and profess their esteem, it's not the same as true friendship, and she must "know her place."

This is not a love story, but it's a look into the various strata of New York City society, the many nationalities, the social tiers, the prejudices and peculiarities, even the different foods. What shines through the narrative is Mimi's story, her effervescent personality, her enthusiasm for life and making friends, her devotion to her son, and her talent for conceiving beautiful, unique creations. This engaging novel could just as well have been set in the present day in terms of the immigrant experience and class divisions. It's not only a pleasure to read; it's thoughtful and filled with likable characters.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on November 22, 2023

The Winthrop Agreement
by Alice Sherman Simpson

  • Publication Date: November 21, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0063304082
  • ISBN-13: 9780063304086