Wednesday, July 16, 2014
"Studio Saint-Ex" by Ania Szado
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.