Styling and Substance

The pleasure of discussing books with my hairdresser.









Laura, the woman who cuts my hair, cares about what is going on inside my head as well as what’s under her scissors. The cliché is true: In the brightly lit salon, between longtime client and gifted hairdresser, there’s confessional intimacy.

Staring into the unforgiving mirror, hair wet, a little vulnerable, a little hopeful, I put myself in her hands, knowing and trusting she will help me feel my best self. It’s reminiscent of the work I’ve tried to do as a psychotherapist: listening, reciprocal trust, and collaboration — the work that is also part of two characters’ lives in my new novel, Frieda’s Song.

There was a long interruption to my visits to Laura during the pandemic. Now my hair is longer and darker. With the pool where I used to swim daily now closed, neither I nor my tresses get chlorinated. In this evolving scenario, the interval between cuts creeps close to three months. But whenever I get to the salon, I settle into the chair as Laura combs and evaluates: “So, what are we doing?”  

Plan made, we talk, covering the basics first. Our families, what’s going on in the world. Our ongoing projects — my writing, the haircuts she offers on the street to the homeless.

And, saving the best for last, we talk about what we’re reading. Like me, Laura is a voracious reader. Yet we’re decades apart. And she’s a stylish stylist — make-up and clothing on-trend. As for me? Well, as my devoted, resigned husband says, I’ve never quite dressed like anyone else. But when it comes to books, Laura and I are kindred spirits, as Anne (the one with an “E,” the one from Green Gables) would say.

Laura’s literary taste, like mine, skews to classic and contemporary novels. We like books about the long, complicated game of loving and caring for people — something we’ve both done personally and professionally. When she cut my hair in May, prepping me for my Zoom book launch, I gave her a copy of Frieda’s Song. She’s a close reader, a fast reader, and was the first to leave an online review.

My recent visit at the end of July was our first chance to talk since she’d read the book. Laura put down the comb and whipped out her phone to check the questions she’d noted to discuss with me. People in my book are in trouble, trying to live and work and love and sort things out.

There’s a kid, a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist — we had lots to talk about. One of her notes stumped her. “I wish I had my book with me. I don’t remember what was going on on page 238 and 239. Look — I was crying.” She’d referenced the pages with a tearful emoji.

I couldn’t recall what was happening on those pages, either, but I told Laura about another reader’s response to a passage in my first novel. She emailed me from the other side of the globe several years ago, explaining that while reading The Bowl with Gold Seams at her hairdresser’s, she began to weep. The dismayed stylist apologized. “The cut is free! I’m so sorry you didn’t like it.”

Laura laughed. She said that although she mostly donates completed books to the Little Library she’s established in the salon, Frieda’s Song would remain on her selective home shelves. I told her about alphabetizing my favorite books when I was a child, and about the basement library one of my kids maintained, complete with date stamp and member library cards (one of which, pictured above, I found recently while sorting and downsizing books again).

Laura described the library she’d run as a child. All her stuffed animals had cards. The late fee was stiff: six dollars per tardy book. Her records show she only charged one patron, her brother, and never collected.   

“Do you mind if I use a little spray?”

The ritual question, ending our session. A spritz, a brush, and I’m almost on my way. First, though, I give Laura directions to the cottage in Rockville, Frieda’s cottage, where my novel takes place — just a few miles from the salon.

On my way out, I stop by Laura’s Little Library to see what I might need to check out. It will be quite a while before I’m back to return it. She’ll waive the fine.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was published last month. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.

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