Leigh Majors is a successful director-in-residence at the Wonderland Theatre in New York City. She didn’t get here because of her father, Frank Majors, a successful Broadway director who died tragically after he had cleaned up his lifestyle. She certainly isn’t there because of her mother, Bridie Hart, who was a good mother to America on her famous sitcom “Mother Love” but not so much for Leigh. And she isn’t even there because of her sister, Lilly, the singer of an up-and-coming band before she was killed in a motorcycle accident. No, Leigh Majors is her own person and has worked her way up based on talent, nothing more. But her newest project is going to take all of the talent she has, plus some extra, in order to make it work.
For her birthday, Leigh’s husband, Michael, presents her with a script he penned – Women in Hats. While Leigh is extremely wary, she finds herself warming to the story as she reads it. Unfortunately, so does Bridie, who insists on playing the matronly lead matronly role, and Leigh finds herself confronted with her worst nightmare: working with her incorrigible mother. If that isn’t enough, her husband mortgages his dental practice to help finance the show (without consulting her), her best friend hasn’t paid taxes for years and may or may not be thrown in jail by the IRS, she finds herself strangely attracted to her stage manager, James, and she must come to terms with the fact that she may never have children. All of this, coupled with a huge casting mix-up and the fact that Bridie seems to be directing the other actors rather than letting Leigh do her job, makes this novel an unforgettable family drama that will resonate with any mother or daughter.
Women in Hats is a compelling story of a woman’s desire to be accepted for what she is. The struggle between mother and daughter is well-written and believable. Bridie’s narcissism and self-centeredness is apparent throughout; however, there is also vulnerability, which is much more difficult to discern. Leigh also has some of that stubbornness and self-centeredness, but also a desire to prove herself without her mother’s overbearing presence. As she faces one mishap after another in her production, Leigh struggles to come to terms with her animosity toward Bridie, which begins to blind her with respect to everything else.
The best part of the book is the mother-daughter dynamic. It is clear from the beginning of the novel that Leigh is angry with her mother for a multitude of sins, from forgetting Christmas one year (or rather, forgetting to ask her assistant to get something for Christmas) to encouraging Lilly in her “bad girl” tendencies, which lead to her early death. However, Bridie’s point of view doesn’t become clear until later in the novel. While she has done some unforgivably selfish things, it is clear that she is only human and just wants to be loved by her daughter. Giving Bridie that three-dimensional presence is difficult; making her the villain, someone easy for the reader to hate, is much easier in the grand scheme of things. But Sheehan writes nuanced characters who have their own reasons and justifications – it makes for a very interesting read.
Underneath it all, Women in Hats is a story of relationships – mother/daughter, husband/wife, friends, director/actor, producer/director – and the effect they have on us. Despite the conflict throughout the book, it actually is a heartwarming and well-written story that anyone should enjoy.