It's all about...popular girls...rec rooms...summers at the lake...dates with wealthy, thrill-crazy antiques...small town political corruption...and finding your true path in life. The Paris Hat considers the sometimes frothy, sometimes serious world of novels for teenage girls from the 1950s and 60s.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Career Romance

Title: The Paris Hat
Author: Mary Cunningham aka Mary Pierce Cunningham.
Publisher: Funk and Wagnalls, 1958
Setting: Bucolic San Francisco
Provenance: "Pat Arnold" inside front cover
Fun: "You see," she explained,"his real love is dressage."; making marzipan out of prune pits; Mysterious Footprints in the Bushes; a big heart-shaped hatbox labeled Chapeaux de Paris.
Quote: "Gerry sat down with a plunk and twiddled her thumbs in mock gravity. "I am a lady," she said demurely. "If you don't believe it, just look in my top drawer and you'll see three and a half pairs of the purest white gloves a lady ever -- "

Apparently there was a recognized genre in the 1950s publishing trade called "career romance." Basically, the heroine was going to choose between a man and a career. The Paris Hat is right square in the middle of this genre. In fact, everyone in The Paris Hat, male and female, is on the horns of some decision about what they really want out of life. The central character is 17-year-old Cathy, lifelong big sister to a mess of motherless children, who has been invited by handsome Rex to be his ballet partner. The other member of the triangle is boy-next-door Walt, who invents things in his spare time and likes fishin'. In the background, Aunt Faith dithers over the Paris hatbox, symbol of the world she has turned her back on when she let her husband go on a two-year business trip to Africa alone. (What business is there in Africa? Sparkling, uncorrupted, blood-free diamonds. A girl's best friend.) And there's Aunt Gerry, an artist who works happily at an ad agency, has plenty of dates and has no wish to get married anytime soon. And finally, there's Rick, with his aforementioned love of dressage, who must work in a bank. There is much discussion of what makes people really happy and general agreement that there are no easy answers. Cathy meets Rachel, Rex's married sister, who says, "If only I could stop being a mother for just a week. Or maybe for just three days." [I will repeat -- this novel was written in 1958. Yes, that 1958.] On page 180, having realized that she is probably not talented enough to be a professional ballerina, Cathy accepts the offer of a job teaching dance to children while continuing her studies. And walks home with Walt, who hopes she'll come over to the workshop if she has a minute.
The Paris Hat is the kind of book where everyone has a housekeeper and there's a grandmother who says "Land's sakes!" But it's a little more than that. All of the characters have a realistic edge and certain liveliness. Consider Grandma:

Grandma was in bed with a book. She always said that she was so old that if she wanted to read in bed around the clock, she guessed she could without her family saying boo.

I'd be willing to be that some of them were based, at least a little, on the writer's family. There's that kind of cosiness to The Paris Hat. And the basic theme of this old-fashioned career romance is that the right choice for you is the one that makes you happy.

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