Fluent in French due to her family’s expatriate background, 22-year-old Mignonne Lachapelle, the fictional heroine, is asked to help aviator and writer extraordinaire Antoine de St-Exupéry, a family friend, improve his English. Desperate to help with the war effort, “Saint-Ex” has been grounded against his wishes and longs to return to France and fight for his country.
Their tutoring sessions turn passionate quickly, but Mignonne gets caught in the middle when Consuelo, Antoine’s vain and high-maintenance Salvadoran wife, expresses interest in the line produced by the studio where Mignonne is an assistant. Meanwhile, Antoine struggles to write the children’s fable that will earn him lasting acclaim. The St-Exupérys are estranged, more on his part than hers; Consuelo wants him back and uses her wiles on Mignonne as a lure to draw him toward her. Within this complex entangling of ambition and desire, each of the trio fights to grasp what they want most.
Although innocent in some ways, Mignonne transcends her expected ingénue role with her creativity and daring, and the finer technical points of dressmaking are captivating to read about. Szado makes the most of her setting: Manhattan in the troubled and exciting 1940s, when fabric restrictions were in place, yet Paris’s occupation by the Nazis gave Americans the chance to gain the upper hand in haute couture.
The language is tailored to each situation: snappy and pointed within the spoken exchanges, elsewhere as languid and elegant as silk draped against the body. The haunting images of war, tragic yet heart-stoppingly beautiful (“falling planes unfurling smoke like the most exuberant of bridal trains”), emphasize the novel's intermingled themes. The author also poses valid questions about artistic integrity and the purpose and value of fashion.
One minor drawback is that the different timeframes aren’t distinguished clearly. The 1940s segments are framed by Mignonne and Consuelo’s viewpoints as seen 25 years later. The women look back separately on their shared past as Expo ’67 in Montreal gets underway, with its “Man and his World” theme based upon Saint-Exupéry’s work.
Studio Saint-Ex is an imaginative blend of fact and fiction, and anyone curious about the history of fashion should consider picking it up. It really ought to come with a full-color portfolio, too. Mignonne’s creations sound divine.
Ania Szado's Studio Saint-Ex (perfect cover for the book, btw) is published today by Knopf in hardcover ($25.95, 368pp) and on Kindle ($12.99). Viking Canada published it in April (C$30.00).