Monday, December 03, 2007

The Collection by Gioia Deliberto

This book was an example of substance winning out over style. I read (and enjoyed) this book despite the pedestrian prose, the predictable dialog, and the horrific cover design. It’s refreshing to know that sometimes even I can get beyond the things that irritate me and just enjoy a good story.

This is an account of a year in the life of Isabelle Varlet, a fictional seamstress who works in Coco Chanel’s atelier in 1919, a year that was pivotal in Chanel’s career. We follow Isabelle as she makes her way from the provinces to Paris, where she easily gets a job with the groundbreaking couturiere. The work is backbreaking and the pay terrible, but Isabelle is thrilled to be part of the Chanel workshop.

I really enjoyed reading about Isabelle at work, about Chanel’s creative process, and about the world of couturier fashion. The book is filled with interesting details about clothing construction, about the hierarchy and the relationships among the women who work for Chanel, and about life in Paris right after World War I. But this is not a skillfully written novel. Too many plot points rely on coincidence or are tied up with little explanation. Isabelle lacks depth, and the dialog is especially flat and boring. The only character who seems alive is Coco Chanel. Yet on balance, I enjoyed this story.

Gioia Diliberto is good at picking out historical footnotes and turning them into interesting novels. I read her first novel, I am Madame X, a few years ago. That book is a fictionalized account of the life of the woman who posed for the beautiful John Singer Sargant painting called Portrait of Madame X. The book came out around the same time as Girl with a Pearl Earring, a similarly themed book, which got a lot more press. I think I am Madame X was a better book than The Collection.

(Book 53, 2007)


Anonymous said...

Yes I would agree that even if the prose or dialogue doesn't sparkle you can still enjoy a book if the theme or plot or details appeal.

I'm currently reading Mary Wesley's The Camomile Lawn and I knew from the opening line that it would appeal to me on every level and it's so nice to discover a book like that!

Becky Holmes said...

But Nicola, sometimes I can't seem to get through a book, no matter how interested I am in the topic. If the writing is too bad, I just can't do it. So this one was "good enough."

I haven't tried that particular Mary Wesley book, but have read others. I like her.

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