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Women in Hats    by Judy Sheehan order for
Women in Hats
by Judy Sheehan
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2008 (2008)
Softcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Just in time for Mother's Day, Judy Sheehan gives us Women in Hats, a witty and amusing satire that proves that there's no-one like a mother, no matter how truly awful she can be. The narrator, Leigh Majors is the second daughter born to multiply married, redheaded film and stage star Bridie Hart and director Frank Majors. Unfortunately for Leigh, 'her birth would signal the start of the tough years in her parents' marriage'.

Leigh is 'a serious child' whose big sister Lilly sails through their parents' marital storms and alcoholic binges apparently unscathed. To the reader, it seems clear that the small children are the ones parenting the over-dramatic adults. After the divorce, Bridie marries an investment banker, who loses all her money, and then takes the children to LA where she stars in a situation comedy called Mother Love (the ultimate irony given her maternal failures and absences), which is a resounding success and wildly popular, making Bridie the center of attention wherever she goes.

Back in New York, Frank Majors 'got out from under the Bridie Hart/brown liquid anvil and found his inner director.' When Leigh turns sixteen, she packs her bags, visits her dad in New York, and finds her own life calling. Then tragedy strikes the family, not once but twice, and Leigh packs up for good. She makes her own success as director-in-residence at the avant-garde Wonderland Theater in New York. She marries Michael Payne, a cosmetic dentist who 'planned surprise parties while she planned rehearsal schedules', and fights her attraction to her perfect stage manager James. And she spends time with her best friend Maddie, a talented artist who utters malapropisms and has problems with the IRS.

It seems that Leigh has created the perfect life for herself, but when it begins to unravel - beginning with shocking medical news - her mother takes on the role of evil incarnate. At the same time, Michael has written a play (which is quite decent in an old-school, commercial way); is ready to risk bankruptcy to fly it; and Leigh's mother-from-hell insists on starring in it, with her daughter as director. Despite problems with casting - and with Bridie's continually second guessing her director - the project goes ahead, with rehearsals in Florida. And it's there that Leigh discovers more of her mother in her own character than she ever understood - and learns how it feels to be happy.

Don't open Women in Hats unless you have time to read it all the way through, as you won't be able to stop turning pages. It's an amazing, funny, bittersweet read about 'a girl who doesn't know how to want what she wants' trying to come to terms with the woman she believes to be the worst mother in the world - one who's perceived by all and sundry (who've seen her in her role of Mother Love) as the best. By the end, Leigh learns to accept the part of herself that's like her mother, to accept her mother as she is, and to move on. Women in Hats is highly recommended and not to be missed!

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