Caroline Preston may just have invented a new art form: the scrapbook novel.
In “The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel in Pictures” (Ecco/HarperCollins), Preston’s amusing, effervescent story, set from 1920 to 1929, unfolds in a running, typed-text set on pages of vintage printed ephemera. Pratt’s tale was inspired partly by Preston’s grandmother, Marion Mason Peter, who became Sylvia Beach’s roommate in Florence in the Twenties. Beach — who went on to own Shakespeare & Co. in Paris and publish James Joyce’s “Ulysses” — was the godmother of Caroline Preston’s mother, Sylvia Peter Preston. Preston will be reading from the book on Thursday evening at 192 Books in Manhattan and on Friday afternoon at the New Canaan Library in New Canaan, Conn.
Pratt is part of a family living in reduced circumstances in Cornish, N.H. (her doctor father died young). She longs to go to college, but her family can’t afford it; she is admitted to Vassar on a scholarship, but even the $500 tuition they’re asking is too much. Instead, she becomes a companion to an old local woman, Mrs. Pingree. Her son Jamie is an attractive young man, who soon is asking Pratt out. They begin to date, but Pratt’s mother doesn’t approve, because she knows that he is married. She goes to Mrs. Pingree and complains about what he has been doing, coming away with enough money to send her daughter to Vassar, where she heads. The plot later takes Pratt to Paris, where she meets Beach and lives above her bookstore. There’s a touch of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s battle-against-the-odds early life story in the narrative, too, and the poet makes a cameo appearance in the book.
Preston, who has also written “Jackie by Josie,” “Lucy Crocker 2.0” and “Gatsby’s Girl,” is a former archivist and keen collector of printed ephemera, and “The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt” features items such as fashion drawings, valentines, cigarette ads, party game boards, prescription forms for medicinal liquor and cards with the names of the Village Barn and the Pirate’s Den, the best places to dance in Twenties’ Greenwich Village. The writer says that she used more than 600 pieces of printed ephemera to do the book, buying many of them from the Mechanicsville, Va. store Whiting’s Old Paper, since her first efforts, using cut-up magazines, looked like “a 12-year-old’s book report.” Preston assembled 200 pages with memorabilia attached with a glue stick, which were then photographed. “It was amazingly low-tech,” she says. Among her inspirations: scrapbooks kept by the poet and novelist H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and writer-photographer Carl Van Vechten in the Twenties.
Preston’s next book will be a second scrapbook novel ostensibly kept by a bride during her first year of marriage in 1959 to 1960, at the edge of the “Mad Men” era. “It starts with her engagement, her first dinner party, choosing her home furnishings,” Preston says. “Nineteen fifty-nine is when Barbie dolls were invented; there were bride paper dolls. I’m just immersed in a whole series of them.”
The writer lives in Charlottesville, Va., where her husband, novelist Christopher Tilghman, teaches at the University of Virginia, and they have three sons. This location provides her with some particular benefits. “In the U.V. library, they have complete runs of Vogue,” Preston says. “You learn so much by looking through old magazines. In the Twenties, women were giddy with excitement about life, inventions, buying a radio, going to the movies, the beginnings of consumer culture. They were worried about things no one ever even thought about before — B.O., bad breath. Then they wore tons of makeup, eye makeup, painted their nails, shaved under their arms. It wasn’t just one woman who did it; every young woman did it.”