Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen by Alix Kates Shulman

Seems that every second person in my Twitter feed is reading (or talking about) Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl. While everyone else has been busy getting stuck into Dunham, I wound the memoir-clock back to what is considered one of the first novels to emerge from the Women’s Liberation Movement (according to the Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing) – Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen.

Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, Shulman’s debut, was published in 1972 and tells the story of Sasha Davis, following her ordinary, middle class life from childhood through to marriage and motherhood. The book is set in America during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and although it is fiction, there are notable parallels between Sasha’s life and that of the author.

Take a handful of quotes –

“They say it’s worse to be ugly. I think it must only be different. If you’re pretty, you are subject to one set of assaults; if you’re plain you are subject to another.”

“As the girls always said, boys go as far as they can, and never backwards.”

“I was ashamed to be seen in a bathing suit, but more ashamed to be ashamed.”

“As girls were divided by their looks and permissiveness, boys were divided by their accomplishments.”

They could equally be from Shulman or Dunham (they’re all Shulman). The point is, in reading about Sasha’s experiences – crises about body image; the double standard between girls and boys sleeping around; balancing work and motherhood; and sexual harassment in the workplace – I was struck by the fact that it’s all EXACTLY THE SAME. Have we evolved? Apparently not. Will my daughter still be grappling with these issues? Odds suggest yes. Depressing.

“One night when we were all lined up at the meat counter shouting in our orders for roast beef au jus before dashing off to serve the soup, Jan Pulaski leaned over the stainless steel counter and with an obscene grin on his beefy face whispered to me, “I’d like to fuck you, baby!” I was beside myself. On the one hand, the remark terrified me: I had never heard that word used as a proper verb before. On the other hand, upon analysis, it was possibly flattering.”

Shulman yo-yos between Sasha’s past and present, which sets a nice backdrop for the contrasting themes of oppression and freedom. Some of the writing is fairly gritty (note that an abortion scene and references to date rape and sexual harassment might be difficult reading for some), some funny, and lots of it, contemplative –

“The conspiracy of silence about motherhood was even wider than the one about sex. Philosophers ignored it and poets revered it, but no one dared describe it.”

 3.5/4 This book has been in print almost continuously since it was published – it’s still largely ‘current’, 42 years later.

“It’s a hard choice: hating the taste of rye I can nurse one a long time, while Mary Janes tend to slip down easily; but in absolute terms, Mary Janes are less potent. Hoping I will never again have to screw out of charity or prudence, I choose to exercise self-control with Mary Janes.”



3 responses

  1. Sounds interesting, Kate. I read Dunham’s book. I liked it, but I like her and her show and think there’s a backlash going on. It’s a serviceable book but I can’t imagine she’s had a lot of time to make it wonderful. I think if she didn’t have the show and was just focusing on writing it would be different/better.

    • Same, I like her and her show (although have only watched the first series). I read an extract from the book and enjoyed it but have also read a few reviews that have said it’s patchy – some bits brilliant, other bits less so. Will get to it eventually!

  2. Pingback: What’s in a Name Challenge 2014 Wrap-up | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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