This is a charming, old-fashioned novel about a small-town girl with dreams of becoming a writer in the 1920s. She attends Vassar, moves to Greenwich Village and begins working for magazines, then travels to Paris to revel in the avant-garde literary scene for a few years before returning home to care for her ailing mother.
If that were all there is to this novel, even your grandmother would find it a little sappy.
What makes it a delightful novelty is its period detail — its visual detail. The novel takes the form of a scrapbook that the protagonist receives as a high-school graduation present. Frankie immediately begins filling it with memorabilia: magazine ads, photos, seed packets, ticket stubs, locks of hair, buttons, report cards, candy wrappers, maps, menus, book covers, etc., along with typed captions. There are a few exchanges of dialogue, and some letters, postcards and telegrams move the plot along, but, for the most part, the lush, full-color illustrations speak for themselves.
This vintage memorabilia exerts oodles of period charm, and it’s artistically appropriate for a novel set in the ’20s. As Frankie learns, it was a great period for literature and experimentation. Her bohemian Jewish roommate at Vassar introduces her to the writings of Pound, Eliot and Stein, and she meets Edna St. Vincent Millay. (Several striking photos of the poet are included, as well as examples of her poetry.) In Paris, Frankie goes to work for a literary magazine that publishes all the latest avant-garde writers, and she even helps James Joyce with his corrections to “Finnegans Wake.”
Much of this is over Frankie’s head. She is at heart a commercial writer, but it’s not over Caroline Preston’s head. In one sense, her novel is an homage to that innovative era, with hints of Hemingway’s minimalism, Pound’s imagism and Max Ernst’s surrealist collage-novels. During this period, some artists were writing early examples of what we now call graphic novels.
“The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt” is not as avant-garde as Leanne Shapton’s recent novel in the form of an illustrated auction catalog, but the idea of “writing” a novel in the form of a scrapbook is a concept worthy of the experimental ’20s.
Every picture here tells a story, and one story tells how Frankie reacts to media — the advertisements she pastes into her scrapbook, the books she reports on, the movies she sees — and how she wavers between embracing and resisting them. She wants to be the bobbed beauty in the Corona typewriter ad as much as a published writer, and all the Gibson girls and Leyendecker lovelies who adorn her scrapbook represent an ideal that she’s smart enough to realize doesn’t exist.
A playful sense of irony and self-awareness runs through the novel, as though Frankie is playing dolls with these images as she constructs her life story. One ad is captioned “My Idea of the Perfect Male . . . An Arrow Shirt man with a brain and a trust fund,” but she doesn’t expect to find one outside the pages of Collier’s. She reads F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise” but is disappointed to learn that college boys don’t really resemble the sophisticates in his novel. Paris is much grittier than the travel guides let on, and the novel ends in 1928, just before the financial crash brought everyone back to reality.
It’s tempting to regard this scrapbook-novel as the fantasy life of a nerdy girl who never left her job at True Story magazine, where she turned reader’s conventional stories into publishable ones. She reveals the magazine’s formula: 1. Make humdrum characters glamorous. 2. Add dramatic plot twist (musician killed in speakeasy brawl, pronounced dead by hero who is now famous doctor). 3. Finish with improbable happy ending (doctor never stopped loving still-beautiful heroine). The suspicious fact that this describes the story Frankie assembles in her scrapbook encourages us to consider the novel as something more cunning and ironic than a cutely curated walk down Memory Lane.
But even if it were no more than that, “The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt” is a retro delight. Meticulously assembled and designed by the author from her own huge collection of memorabilia, it turns scrapbooking into a literary art form. Fans of the Roaring ’20s, Nick Bantock and modernism will all find something of value in Preston’s nostalgic ephemera.
Moore is a literary critic whose latest book is “The Novel: An Alternative History.”
THE SCRAPBOOK OF FRANKIE PRATT
A Novel in Pictures
By Caroline Preston
Ecco. 236 pp. $25.99