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Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen by Alix Kates Shulman

Thinking Outside the Hatbox

Thirty five years ago, Alix Kates Shulman published her first novel entitled Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972). An immediate best seller, the book worked in tandem with Fear of Flying (1973) to give millions of married women pause: is my marriage really satisfying? How did I get here? Should I leave? Ex-Prom Queen was one of the first books where a woman revealed rights of passage that were decidedly un prom-like: date rape, marital rape, infidelity, illegal abortions -- all in the same year that Roe vs. Wade was being debated in the Supreme Court.

The events in the book take place in the 50s. Sasha Davis is the Jewish daughter of an Ohio lawyer who has tomboy principles and princess yearnings. When she wins a beauty contest at the age of 15, all of her adolescent beauty concerns are reaffirmed. Sasha marries her first husband Frank, a graduate student of history at Columbia who finds her pretty and smart. As for Frank, Sasha says, “I was fond of him. None of his parts were missing.” These traits prove less than substantial when she realizes that he lives by “no’s and don’ts” while she lives by “yes and do.”

The question is, thirty-five years later, is the book something we need to rehash? Do more modern tomes do the job better? The new edition includes a forward by a Jennifer Baumgartner, a former editor at Ms., who says it best: “it seems reasonable to ponder why it’s important for social movements to have novels and art -- aren’t the important feminist ideas written down in manifestos? It’s important because art reflects nuance and humanity, while tracts, however cogent, are arguments.”

It’s true. Sasha doesn’t expound; she has experiences and then reflects on them. The high school boys who pretend to give her a ride home but really want to feel her up, the school jock who equates her with his recent basketball victories, the college professor who enjoys some afternoon delights away from his wife and three children and in return for her services, praises her essay on Nietzsche. In a prescient scene where Sasha undergoes therapy in a last ditch effort to understand herself and save her first marriage, she explains her dream of a chess game where she wants to be both the pawn and the queen who can move in any direction. Her therapist decides that she is trying to deny her feminine self. Sasha petitions for divorce anyway.

With each reissue, a book undergoes new cover art. This edition shows a woman looking at herself in a hand-held mirror while standing in front of a vanity where a framed picture of a woman with a 50s bouffant hair-do rests. The cover hints at what newcomers to the book may face: as women read about Sasha, they may not be reading about themselves so much as their mothers.

Shulman has since written eleven books: three other novels, four books of non-fiction including a work on anarchist Emma Goldman, and three books for children.

Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen by Alix Kates Shulman
Farrar Straus Giroux
March 14, 2007
Paperback, $15
ISBN-13: 978-0-374-53079-2
274 pages