Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Studio Saint-Ex" by Ania Szado

“Studio Saint-Ex” is about how talent alone is not enough to elevate those seeking fame, money, the bright lights and all that.

Mignonne Lachapelle is a young woman, not of humble means. She has an inheritance and the good will her father compiled serving the French ex-pat community of New York City in the 1930s and '40s.

Her desire is to be a fashion designer at the height of the World War II, when fabrics are being rationed and fashion is stalled, because life-and-death matters now occupy France, when France was fashion.

“Studio Saint-Ex” is told mostly by Mignonne, although a third person narration this reviewer could never figure out was delivering says of her:

“Fashion at its best was the most subtle and complicated of aphrodisiacs, and the girl had a witch's instinct for the nuances of desires.”

To Consuelo, the girl has fire in her, “The stubborness and strength of a bulldog in the  body of a whippet.”
Through contacts made at what used to be her late father's club, Mignonne falls in with the St. Exuperys. That's St. Exupery as in Antoine, the big, rugged, adventuring pilot who wrote “The Little Prince” and other internationally successful novels of the early 20th century.

His wife is a fiery, enigmatic sexpot by the name of Consuelo. When Mignonne comes upon the couple, the marriage is on the rocks.

Antoine is grounded in the U.S., unable to fly his planes in the effort to liberate France from the Nazis. He's blocked as a writer and experiencing a decline in his energies, but has been enchanted by a beautiful blonde boy on a trip to Montreal where the idea of “The Little Prince” is born.

Mignonne, for her part, is in a testy business partnership with the flinty Madame Vera Fiche, a former instructor at her fashion school who stole a design that subsequently proved to have legs. Threatening Fiche with exposure, Mignonne gets the partnership in a failing design studio.

Our ambitious young designer is charged with dredging up business and she targets Consuelo as a source of possible commissions and publicity. An ambiguous game between Mignonne and the St. Exuperys ensues. And what else could it have other than seduction, restraint, duplicity and a lot of debates regarding the virtue of one fabric over another? Debates about the need to meet the demands of the market versus the demands of one's genius.

Mignonne boldly plays her talent and her beauty before the worldly French glitterati, seeking fame as a designer and Antoine St. Exupery for a husband.

How will she play high society? How will it play her? Prizes are laid out on the table, up for grabs, as Mignonne paints a portrait of wartime New York and the passions and antagonisms of the French war refugees who have found in it an asylum.

"An Italian Wife," by Ann Hood

Ann Hood's melting pot-boiler "An Italian Wife" revisits the fast-assimilating arc of Italian immigrant families over decades, but makes the return trip worth the while.

The multi-generational family saga is not new to literature. Nor are literary works tracing the integration of Italian-Americans into New World life uncommon. Gay Talese's "Unto the Sons," comes to mind.

In, "An Italian Wife," Hood traces the lineage of an Italian woman who emigrates from Conca Campania to the United States and has a lot of children whose offspring coil roots into American soil.

This series of loosely bound vignettes is of mostly feminine perspective. There are stories about Josephine, her daughters, their daughters and then one more generation of daughters; from Josephine to her great-grandchildren.

The book could also be entitled, "Unto the Daughters," the feminine counter to Talese's patriarchal reconstruction.

The ladies here considered are linked by bloodline, but little else. Their disparate life trajectories in the U.S. as different as their homeland is from their mother country. The lack of bonding amongst the Rimaldi women is reflected in the fragmented narrative, not a weakness here, rather an honest literary reporting of what has transpired. The Rimaldi women did not cohere into one big family epic, rather a series of short and varied renderings.

There are scant threads making intermittent appearances, that pack punch and a reminder that "The Italian Wife," is a family saga.

Again, the story has been told. The clash between the old-country folk and their children born in America. The disdain for Nonna's sharp cheese smelling purse, the cool kid's embarrassment at a neighborhood filled with plastic Madonna's on every other lawn.

But Hood's book tells it anew and different very well. Her timeline runs from the 1870s to that terrifying and liberating decade, the 1970s, so that later editions of the Rimaldi clan are radical departures from anything those before them could have conjured.

The country is infamously adrift and its youth are enjoying, with reckless abandon, the behavioral turf carved out by their '60s forebears, with recreational drugs, casual sex and other horrors that ended American civilization, as predicted.

The last Rimaldis are wild kids and their Italian-ness is reduced to a matter of lifestyle choice. Some will identify with their past, others will drift into rootless cosmopolitanism.

These last will represent the death knell for the close-knit Italian-American community as it thrived for a century and a half on these shores, and a good place for Hood to close the circle on a process of forgetting and belonging, and make her story a true story.

"An Italian Wife" is evocative of many places, pleasures, remembrances and regrets universal to all. It is particular in its study of the loss of Italian roots by succeeding generations of immigrant families, and is engaging in its painful portrayal of the limitations placed upon women of a certain ethnicity and class.

It is a lovely book.