Saturday, August 10, 2019

Park Avenue Summer by Renee Rosen

I've said it a million times, and I'll say it again: cover art sucks me in every time. The woman on this cover pulls off a look that I could have never, ever pulled off! It sets the tone for the story of Alice Weiss, a newcomer to New York City in 1965.  

Alice arrives in NYC from Youngstown, Ohio, old camera in hand, ready to dive into her love of photography. She hopes to find a job as a photographer, but quickly realizes her portfolio of photos is unimpressive in a city known for high fashion. An old family friend hooks Alice up with an interview for secretary to a new editor in chief at Cosmopolitan magazine: Helen Gurley Brown. 

Alice takes the job, since it's the only one she's been offered, and it's steady employment. The world she enters is pretty fast paced, and HGB is not your typical executive. As the new-and first-woman editor for Cosmopolitan, she's got quite a few different ideas about what a woman's magazine needs to be, and she's meeting a lot of resistance from corporate headquarters. She's tossing out all the old stories, photos, and concepts, and is determined to revamp Cosmo into a young, sexy, fun magazine for women like Alice: career oriented ladies who have boyfriends, casual sex, and want to enjoy it all. HGB is a giant bomb that lands right in the middle of a very conservative group of male executives. 

Alice sees it all, and quickly becomes indispensable to HGB as her secretary, arranging meetings, appointments, keeping track of it all, and guarding HGB's office door from unwanted visitors. It's a hectic time both in and out of the office. Someone is trying to sabotage HGB's first Cosmo issue...

Meanwhile, Alice is navigating her way through the city, camera in hand, hoping to sharpen her skills and not giving up on her dream to be a photographer. After all, her mother was a model in NYC and Alice has dreamt of living there all her life. Now she needs to make her dreams come true, but how?

A lot of this novel is about the first few months at Cosmo under HGB's leadership. She was a bit of an odd duck-very tiny physically, but an incredibly strong, tough woman when she had to be. Devoted to her husband, she leaned on him through it all, and he was her wise mentor. She was up against an established way of thinking about women, and determined to change that-especially after the raging success of her book Sex and the Single Girl, published in 1962. She rocked the boat--actually, she capsized the boat! 

I got into this story pretty quickly, and zipped through it. I spent a few early mornings reading before work because I couldn't put it down. Novels about women starting out on their own and finding their way always have a special appeal to me, and this was one of those novels. If you're at all a fan of Mad Men, you will enjoy Alice's story. 1965 was a year of big, big changes for Alice. 

I remember quite vividly the covers of Cosmopolitan magazine in the late 70's and early 1980's. The women were super glam, and the covers always had lines about sex, orgasms, and how to be that "it" girl. When I did venture to flip through the magazine, it was mostly ads for perfume, designer clothes, and makeup. I know without a doubt if I'd brought one home my Mom would have thrown it in the garbage. It was, without saying, "that" magazine for women. It was naughty, thrilling, and full of advice for young women living on their own, having flings, and living their lives full speed ahead. I was, however, not one of those women, and my babysitting money was barely enough to cover buying Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific shampoo and conditioner, much less oodles of makeup and clothes. 

I had to do some internet searching of Helen Gurley Brown, of course. She died in 2012. She ran Cosmopolitan for decades, until she was forced out. Her views, which were empowering for women in the 1960's didn't much change over the years, and eventually became outdated and out of touch with what was really going on in women's lives in the 80's, 90's. But when she was riding high at Cosmo, she was inspiring to a whole generation of young women. 

Rating: 4/6 for an engaging story about the beginning of Helen Gurley Brown's reign as Cosmopolitan's first female editor in chief, as seen from a young woman who serves as her secretary. Follow Alice's journey from newbie to the big city to a young woman confident in her choices and the new life she makes. 

Available in paperback, ebook and audio. 

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