Surface tensions

Elisa Segrave faces the ugly truth about cosmetic surgery; Skin by Joanna Briscoe, Phoenix House, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
You will certainly never want a face-lift after reading this novel. Its heroine Adele Meier, a former beauty and a best-selling author who invented a subversive character called Loulou, finds herself in middle- age, living alone in Paris. She is no longer with Laurence, her great love, whom she met in New York as a young woman. Once, Laurence left his wife and baby for her. Now he has returned to England and married a conventional English wife.

Joanna Briscoe describes in graphic detail the facial operations Adele embarks on in Paris in order to stave off the signs of approaching age: "the surgeon removed a string of fat from the patient's eyelid. This was shining yellow and lumpy in texture" while "the patient's cheek... flopped over her ear, unattached, rooted only at the mouth, nose and eyes". In between each operation and its painful after-effects, Adele's past unfolds. Her Austrian parents emigrated to Virginia with 14-year-old Adele, her older sister Kati and her two brothers John and Karli. Her father abandoned them for a local woman while Adele was still a teenager. A few years later her mother died of a heart attack. Adele went north, first to New Jersey, then to New York.

Adele's narcissism in middle age makes her seem unsympathetic. We do not learn about her girlhood until later. I am not sure how far Briscoe intended to create such an immediately unlikeable character. Adele's cold- blooded seductions of two young men in Paris, undertaken mainly to convince herself that she still has sexual power, are described with skilful eroticism. I must admit to envy - both of Briscoe for her writing and of Adele herself for nailing two young men at her age. Nonetheless, this lack of emotion makes these scenes ultimately chilling. Indeed, apart from her love for her step-daughter, Melina (hospitalised in England with anorexia), Adele often seems so self-absorbed that I found it difficult to believe that she had written a bestselling book with universal appeal.

"Loulou has very exotic sex and manipulates men and says what most women only dare to think in their secret minds," Adele says, explaining her book's success to an audience of fans in Paris. But although she has won acclaim for inventing a contemporary feminist idol, Adele knows that she has always relied heavily on male admiration. "I always needed my Holy Grail, the male with his hormones and his gifts to me", she admits to herself. And yet, long ago in New York, during her heady period as a young beauty, she had already half realised the flip side of sexual magnetism. "I was exalted by men as I was injured by men. It's make you feel so terrible, so high, you are their circus animal, pretty pelt and leash".

This accomplished, intelligent novel throws up interesting questions. Are beautiful women different? Is ageing actually worse for them, because they are accustomed to depend on their looks? Do very beautiful women often become narcissistic when young?

In one poignant moment, while recovering from facial surgery, Adele remembers the older women she used to see on the Upper East Side where - in her twenties, at the height of her attractiveness - she worked as personal secretary to a German banker's wife. She never gave these women and their face-lifts more than a passing thought but now, alone in Paris, she recalls the "shark grins of effort stretching their features" and their eyes, "widened with simulated youth and yet precisely blank, a dull dead glitter".

Worrying, too late, about the cycle of operations she has inflicted on herself, she realises that she is no different from them. "The surgical interventions create a homogenised tribe: women who resemble each other, sisters under the skin."

Skin has some beautiful passages, in particular when Adele tells how she and Laurence first fell in love. I also liked the descriptions of her youth in New York, where, after a stint in the Martha Washington women's hostel and some unsatisfactory flat-shares, she settles with two girlfriends in "a brownstone in the dusty and blossomed upper reaches of Greenwich Village, on West 13th Street, where the white church struck bells and Sixth Avenue was a clutter of shoe repairers and discount shops".

There are also many memorable vignettes and pithy remarks about men, as when Laurence first makes love to her: "He was different, in the way that men are when they are erect and as vulnerable as boys with sticks, and sinewed and Biblical and alarming".

But I suspect that Skin will be remembered most for its powerful evocation of panic and loneliness: of that disturbing moment when every woman is forced to realise, for the first time, that she too will grow old.