What comes to mind when you think of Paris in the 1920s? I think of expats, iconic names like Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach. I also think of locations such as charming cafes, the Eiffel Tower, and even more importantly, Shakespeare and Company. A wealth of culture and art. An unsurpassed time of artistic discovery and expression at the romantic heart of Paris.
Having recently read A Moveable Feast, this romanticized Paris was fresh in my literary imagination when I read Caroline Preston’s most recent work, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt.
Preston has a unique connection to Paris in the 1920s, which she revealed in her “reading” last week at George Mason. I say “reading” because The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is very much a visual feast of color and shape, so the “reading” was really more of an explanation about how she came to write a novel in the form of a scrapbook. Anyway, it turns out that Sylvia Beach was her grandmother’s godmother and had sent her pictures of Shakespeare and Company, even a picture of her standing with James Joyce outside of the famous bookstore.
This connection with Paris in the ‘20s, along with her discovery of Fitzgerald’s scrapbooks were what inspired her to take on the project of creating a novel in the form of a fictional character’s scrapbook. Preston collected real scraps of life from the era, theater tickets, Arrow shirt ads, magazine covers, photos, letters, and many other mementos. In her “reading” she also explained that when she began collecting online images or scanning items, she soon realized that the images could never be as convincing as a real scrapbook full of actual clippings from the ‘20s. She began collecting items from antique shops across the country, organizing them into large boxes by chapter, each for a different period in Frankie’s life.
As she began assembling the pages, Caroline considered what type of items a girl would collect from various places that she lived. When Frankie was living with her family in Cornish, New Hampshire, she collected things a country girl would have, like seed packets and clippings from Sears catalogs. As she moved to New York and began working in publishing, she started including covers of literary magazines and newspapers. And when she arrived in Paris, she began including more refined items like theater tickets and clippings from fashion magazines. Once she had assembled the pages, Preston piled them into a suitcase and dragged them to her publisher in New York where they were photographed for the final version of the book.
Through Frankie’s scrapbook, Preston tells the story of a budding writer who seeks bigger and more exciting opportunities and surroundings, ultimately reaching the ideal of Paris. All of this makes me wonder, was Paris in the 1920s really such a perfect place, or is it just something that’s been idealized over the years by books like A Moveable Feast and The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt? It’s easy to get caught up in reverence for golden ages in culture and literature, but what if Hemingway, or Frankie for that matter, had been too preoccupied with history to experience the vibrant city of Paris whirling around him?
Caroline Preston is the author of 4 novels: Jackie By Josie, Gatsby’s Girl, Lucy Crocker 2.0, and most recently, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. For her latest book she collected items from the 20s era to make a beautiful scrapbook which tells the engaging story of a young girl who moves from her hometown of Cornish, New Hampshire to New York, and later to Paris in her quest to become a writer. Originally from Lake Forest Illinois, Caroline now lives in Charlottesville, VA.