Through Lucy Lawrence, the 21 year old heroine of Perfect Red, author Jennie Nash shows present-day readers what it was like to be an intelligent young woman in America in 1952. The daughter of a Wilmington, Delaware research chemist and a homemaker, Lucy goes to New York City to be part of the writing and publishing world. Although no one has encouraged her early attempts at fiction, she still dreams of using her excellent typing skills not only to earn her living, but, eventually, to type her very own novel.
Lucy's idea for a novel hasn't quite jelled. She wants to write something about the new lipstick, Perfect Red, which is all the rage among New York women, especially the other young career girls who live at the Barzabon Hotel for Women. Rumour has it that the shade inflames men's passions and instils confidence in the wearer. Lucy is fascinated with both the mystique and the composition of this cosmetic. Her father, in his home laboratory, tries to find the lipstick's secret ingredient, so that he can replicate it and achieve something in chemistry beyond developing detergents.
Even before she tries Perfect Red, Lucy's life is complicated by three seemingly eligible bachelors. Her boss, Jamison Fenwick, hopes to take over his father's publishing company someday, despite his secret reading disability. The celebrity author T.J. Wright, whom Jamison lured to the company with a substantial advance, can't follow up his best-selling World War II novel with a second book. Through both T.J. and Lucy, Nash shows that a good idea needs a spark to set it aflame. Jamison and T.J. are both willing to exploit others to succeed, unlike Jeffrey Baines, owner of Inkwell Bookshop, who has achieved his goal gradually through hard work.
In Lucy's era, a young woman's goal was supposed to be marriage, motherhood and a middle class life. Lucy wants more, but makes mistakes while trying to find a path. Socially conditioned to be a conscientious hardworking rule-follower, she first plays helpmate to Jamison and T.J., not realizing that they will resent her for discovering their deficiencies. When she decides to use a man who is using her, she gains valuable experience and information for her novel, but suffers considerable angst. An essential ingredient in a lipstick makes the difference between a dazzling shade and a mediocre one, and, similarly, if a key ingredient is missing in a relationship (like love and respect), sex can be an underwhelming experience.
The Red Scare is a key plot element in Perfect Red. Senator Joseph McCarthy is presiding over the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings, and people's lives and careers are being ruined by allegations that they are communists or sympathizers. An actor acquaintance of Lucy's flees to Canada. A chemist who has been corresponding with a foreign colleague, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, falls under suspicion because the other scientist lives in Red China. Even the lipstick name, "Perfect Red", raises questions in some circles. Does the "red" imply more than just a colour? A person who could be labelled a "red" becomes an important catalyst for Lucy. By showing the impact of the Second World War, the Red Scare and the male-supremacist attitudes of the 1950s, Nash deepens her novel far beyond chick-lit. In the end, like a Jane Austen or a Susan Isaacs heroine, Lucy gets most of what she wants, including a passionate relationship with a decent man who treats her as an equal. Perfect Red is a treat to read.