Author: Ania Szado
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1930s / 1940s / 1960s / Antoine de Saint-Exupéry / New York City / Montreal / Fashion Design / Infidelity / Marriage / French Ex-Pats / Quebecois)
Publisher/Publication Date: Knopf (6/4/2013)
Source: The publisher.
Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did -- in just a few nights.
One-sentence summary: A young fashion designer in 1940s Manhattan meets famed author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his wild, reckless wife, and becomes embroiled in their marriage when she designs fashions for them.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do -- I believe it's a design by Valentina, who is a fashion designer mentioned in this novel. The artificial pose/setting is reminiscent of a show that makes up a huge part of the climax toward the end.
First line: I haven't even brought a book.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like novels about creativity, art, and the process of bringing a project to fruition.
Why did I get this book?: I know a little about Saint-Exupéry as a pilot and for his famed children's book, and couldn't resist this more...tawdry...look at him!
Review: I will admit right off I was nervous about a novel from the viewpoint of the mistress. I'm a wuss about infidelity in fiction. But what little I know about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry -- his famous book The Little Prince and his adventures as a mail pilot -- made me excessively curious about this novel, and Szado didn't disappoint. I loved this book and raced through it -- and adored our heroine.
Shifting between 'now' -- 1967, on the eve of a Montreal exposition dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry -- and 'then' -- 1940s, the novel focuses on the year Saint-Exupéry started his famed book, The Little Prince.
Mignonne Lachapelle is a young fashion designer in 1940s Manhattan, newly returned from Montreal after caring for her mother, nursing a kind of broken heart over her confusing friendship with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Determined to pursue a career in fashion design, she is on her way to the atelier of her professor -- a woman Mignonne has discovered stole her designs and passed them off as her own. In a kind of devil's pact at a chance to be a designer, Mignonne is roped into working for this woman and using the Lachapelle family connections with the French ex-pat community to build up and gain clients for the atelier.
The dream client? Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, the passionate, reckless, dangerous, and wild wife of Antoine.
Juggling her desire for professional success as well as her wish for Antoine to find some measure of happiness -- both emotionally and professionally -- Mignonne becomes embroiled in the Saint-Exupéry marriage. Unsurprisingly, it's hot, messy, messed up, sweet, heartbreaking, and deeply sad.
Both the resolution and the complicated relationships Mignonne ended up having with both Antoine and Consuelo surprised me and delighted me. I was fascinated and repulsed by both Antoine and Consuelo, and I just loved sweet, determined Mignonne. I found myself completely in Mignonne's camp, wanting her to find her happiness and her romantic dream (although, I'll admit, I wasn't as taken with Antoine as she was!).
In addition to the big characters -- everyone is a personality in this book -- the other star was the clothing. Szado beautifully conveys the tactile and visceral experience of creating art -- in thus case, haute couture fashion -- in such easy detail, I felt like I was handling the material Mignonne was handling, witnessing the dresses she made. (This book made me wish it had a splashy section of color pictures for Mignonne's fashions; I was devastated when I discovered Mignonne was wholly fictional and her designs aren't real!)
My only 'complaint', perhaps, is that the shift between the '40s and the '60s aren't noted. In a single chapter, we might go from the 'then' narrative -- World War II -- back to the 'now' -- the 1960s -- and it's only context that allows me to guess when we are. Otherwise, I was immersed in this book from the first page, captivated and fascinated by the Saint-Exupérys and Mignonne. I'm dying to reread The Little Prince now (as well as pick up the Stacy Schiff biography of Antoine!).
Fans of biographical historical fiction should get this one (and be prepared to want to dig out some biographies afterward!). Those who like books about artists, the creative process, or fashion design will also enjoy this book. Scandalous enough for a fun summer read, there's still emotional meat and resonance to make this satisfying. (And hard to forget!)
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Studio Saint-Ex to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 8/2. Be sure to check out my interview with Ania Szado for another entry!