Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Perfect Red by Jennie Nash

Perfect Red, A Novel, came to me in a beautiful package from the author as part of a promotion from Shelf Awareness. Though I believe my copy is an ARC, Ms Nash tied it up with a red ribbon, signed it and included a note about the typos being corrected in the final printing, and there were two perfectly beautiful postcards showing a woman in profile who looks like Grace Kelly from the 1950s applying lipstick, with the phrase "What would you risk to follow your passion?" emblazoned in red italics on the upper right corner of the card. Readers learn later in the book that this is a representation of the book that the protagonist, Lucy Lawrence, self publishes.

Though elegantly presented and charmingly wrought, Perfect Red suffers from one outstanding flaw.
The characters are not drawn realistically or believably as they could be, descending at times into two-dimensional stereotypes or archetypes of people living in 1950s East Coast cities like New York and Washington DC. I found myself thinking that the novel could easily be considered Candace Bushnell-light, with its focus on all the surface things, like fashion, lipstick and men that women in Bushnell's novels are obsessed with to the nth degree. Yet instead of "Sex and the City" this novel is about the trials and tribulations of a young secretary to a publisher who has a book idea that "haunts" her and yet she hasn't the gumption to actually write the book herself, so she works in publishing as a way to somehow learn to write this book by hanging around writers and publishers and apparently gaining insight into writing by osmosis.

Though I liked the central idea of the book, that there is a lipstick that is such a perfectly red color that it causes a kind of fanaticism among women, who believe it has magical properties to snare a man, and that the passion and obsession to obtain the secret to this lipstick is overpowering for Lucy's father, I didn't really buy that this quest would bring Lucy and her father to the attention of the House Unamerican Activities Committee and Senator Joe McCarthy. I know that the HUAC destroyed the lives of many people who ended up on their blacklist, like Elia Kazan and other Hollywood actors, directors, screenwriters, etc. Their witch hunt for "commies," "pinkos" and other "reds" or communist sympathizers bordered on the insane, and caused a lot of damage to a lot of people's lives. But bringing in a young secretary who writes a fiction novel about a perfect red lipstick and its origins seems like it would have been well beneath their notice.

I insist on adding "young" before the protagonist's name because throughout the novel, she's like a drawing of a perfect 20-year-old blond girl living in the city (in the 50s). She's virginal, chaste, easily shocked, cries at the drop of a hat, is "plucky" but not aggressive, because that would be unlady-like, and she has the melodramatic and naive outlook on life that Nancy Drew or Doris Day had in their books and movies, that fresh-complexion, dewy-eyed belief that a man will take you by the hand and bring you ecstasy in the bedroom and then marry you and plunk you down into a nice suburb where you'll have two kids and the American dream all wrapped up. Yes, I mean characters sweet enough to give you diabetes. But even though Lucy breaks with tradition to want to be a writer, her ineffectual jabs at writing and her ability to give her book into the hands of TJ Wright (yes, the author actually has "Mr Wright" as a name for the male protagonist/antagonist) in order to save her job and her boss Jamison's job comes off as cowardly at best and stupid at worst. Any reader will see their betrayals coming a mile off. I was not surprised, then, when TJ turned out to be a cad, a thief and a rapist. I was surprised that Nash never calls the sexual assault that Lucy endures a rape, nor does she call TJ the novelist a rapist. Instead, Lucy continues to suffer at his hands when her boss fires her and tears up her manuscript, and then TJ and/or Jamison turns her in to HUAC after she rewrites (for the third time) her book and publishes it with her bookstore-owner boyfriend, Jeffrey. She seems to suffer no other ill effects from being raped, other than the satisfaction of seeing TJ become a homeless bum and Jamison lose his job and livelihood as well.

She's even too much of a coward to open an envelope from that boyfriend, and has to have someone open it for her. Her childish reactions and blindness to reality becomes so ridiculous that there were times when I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her until her teeth rattled, and yell at her to grow a spine and stop being such a wimpy, whiny baby, and assuming that you need a man to publish a book. I would have told her mother to go to hell and I would have brought TJ up on charges and I would have decked Jamison the jerk, and I never would have been so submissive to a man I am supposedly in love with who runs a bookstore. Lucy acts like she is at fault for having been raped and robbed, and she practically crawls on hands and knees to get Jeffrey to "take her back" though Lucy and Jeffrey claimed they love one another. I realize sexism was pervasive in the 50s, but her childish naivete becomes nauseating (and ridiculous) after about the first 5 chapters. Readers can only suspend disbelief for so long.

Though it might not sound like it, I did, actually, enjoy reading Perfect Red, if for no other reason than for the insight into how lipstick is made, and the importance of color and style. The glimpse into the 50s world of fashion was interesting as well, and Nash's prose, while simple, was still clean and clear enough to aid the greased lightening plot along the fast track. I'd give the book a C+ and recommend it to those interested in 1950s fashion/cosmetics and glamor, and those curious as to how McCarthy's shenanigans effected people's lives outside of Hollywood.

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