Louise Canova, heroine of Kathleen Tessaro's appealing first novel, has a life spiralling out of control. She cannot stop sleeping all the time, her eating patterns are masochistic, her tidiness-obsessed actor husband barely notices her, she has violent nightmares, and her one female friend is both envious and dismissive. Tessaro builds up this picture of a life in crisis with effective, hazy detachment.
Into this disordered setting arrives, via a second-hand bookshop, a tall and slim volume also entitled "Elegance". This is an authoritative A-Z of style solutions written by a Mme Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, a French style expert once high up in the Nina Ricci fashion empire. Unlike the self-help books which often appear in fiction of this sort ("You and Your Partner" in Alain de Botton's The Romantic Movement or "Good Love? Bad Love?" in my own The Normal Man), Dariaux's "Elegance" is a real book by a fashion expert, not a creation of the novelist. Instantly, it appeals to our heroine and each of its chapters, such as "F for Fur" or "Y for Yachting", becomes a conduit for Louise's transformation, her preoccupations and her painful memories.
Although she's not exactly Diana Vreeland, Madame Dariaux's fashion tips are engaging. Soon they adorn Louise's walls: "Beauty is no guarantee of happiness, strive instead for elegance, grace and style," becomes the heroine's mantra. But the more prescriptive instructions are the ones I liked most. Her "Ideal Wardrobe" chapter is particularly captivating: "6pm. A black wool dress, not very décolleté. It will take you everywhere, from the bistro to the theatre ..."
The fashion details are vivid and atmospheric. The "harmonising sweaters" and "capacious brown alligator bags" conjure up a world where no one is at a loss. Yet elegance, for Dariaux, is a fierce discipline. When it comes to accessories she commands, "Never be seduced by anything that isn't first-rate."
There are perhaps too many slightly rootless passages of self-absorption, and an overlong underwear-shopping session. Yet as our heroine tries to come to terms with her difficult past, the book does examine how we can change our lives by altering our appearance. It is not nonsense to say that how we look deeply affects how other people treat us, and how other people treat us affects the way we lead our lives. This is a point made often in Elegance, but with humour. When Louise begs her husband to find a term of endearment more feminine than "Pumpkin", the best he can come up with is "Little Sausage".
Inevitably, after Louise's great infatuation with Madame there follows a disillusionment. For what happens to ugly feelings in this environment of high co-ordination and alligator belts? Finally it is friendship, not "Elegance", that proves Louise's real saviour, and the friendships that develop through the book are drawn carefully and with insight.
It is a subtle counterpoint to the novel that, in the end, Mme Dariaux is shown not to be quite as dictatorial as at first she seems. She, too, has been on some kind of journey. At the close of her book, the woman who grandly counselled that comfort was the number one enemy of elegance changes her tune, advocating that "it is in the moments that we forget ourselves that we are at our most beautiful".
Susie Boyt's latest novel is 'The Last Hope of Girls'
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