Pungent with pipe smoke, unwashed cardigans and grubbily thumbed copies of Tropic of Cancer, secondhand bookshops are an unlikely source of chic. But several years ago Kathleen Tessaro emerged from one with an "extraordinary" book called Elegance by Madame Genevieve Antoine Dariaux: an early 1960s encyclopedia of style which inspired and guided this novel about a young American woman whose sloppy London lifestyle is in desperate need of a full makeover.
We meet Louise, a former actress now cooped up in a theatre box office, on the threshold of a potentially humiliating night out with her husband. They are off to an exhibition of iconic black-and-white fashion shots, including several of his grotesquely seductive mother. "Look," he bargains with his reluctant wife, "if it's dreadful we'll just leave. We'll stay for one drink and go. We'll use a code word: potato."
Louise stares down at her clumpy shoes, past her bobbly old dress, thinking that "when your mother-in-law is an ex-model from the 1950s, who specialises in reducing you to a blithering pulp each time you see her then there is really only one word that springs to mind, and that word is potato." And she wishes her sexually inattentive, housework-obsessed spouse would stop calling her "Pumpkin". Lumpen vegetables seem to be featuring rather prominently in Louise's life, and she'd rather be a rose, or a sweet pea.
Our heroine's transformation begins when she turns to a fictionalised version of Dariaux's book for old-world solace and advice. Each chapter begins with a few cultured pearls from the past. Comfort is the enemy of elegance, warns the crisp voice of couture. A yachting expedition is the perfect opportunity, she says, to show you are not afraid to be seen without make up. Remember: a veil adds mystery to a hat. We dress not for who we are, but for the women we aspire to be. And how could any woman not sigh over the possibility of an impeccable wardrobe of classically cut silk and cashmere? A clear cup of lapsang souchong at the Ritz, held poised above the perfectly fitting satin heels? Oh for the dream of uncluttered elegance, on the rack and in the mind!
The snag is that Louise's quest for a new external image becomes far more urgent and interesting for the reader than her emotional reinvention, which I found about as convincing as a Prada bag from Walthamstow market. And the true love she finds at the end feels just as flimsy. But it is still fun to read about her girly misadventures, moving out of her marital home and into the house of a gay colleague. Her disastrous dates, Soho posturing and career-threatening applications of fake tan are a real giggle.
Tessaro is a witty and confident writer whose sleek new line in chick-lit is certainly classier than the kind that comes in neon blue and pink covers. This may be a High Street, rather than a designer novel. But it's definitely Karen Millen, not Top Shop.Reuse content