The Collection

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Isabelle Varlet, charming and naïve, comes from a long line of seamstresses in a small town in France. A series of unfortunate events and her prodigious sartorial talent carry her to Paris, which in the wake of World War I is electric with new life. When Isabelle takes a job in the atelier of Coco Chanel, the rising star of haute couture, she finds herself in the heart of a glamorous and ruthless world filled with arrogant designers, handsome men, beautiful women, and fashion thieves who prowl Paris hoping to ...

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The Collection: A Novel

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Overview

Isabelle Varlet, charming and naïve, comes from a long line of seamstresses in a small town in France. A series of unfortunate events and her prodigious sartorial talent carry her to Paris, which in the wake of World War I is electric with new life. When Isabelle takes a job in the atelier of Coco Chanel, the rising star of haute couture, she finds herself in the heart of a glamorous and ruthless world filled with arrogant designers, handsome men, beautiful women, and fashion thieves who prowl Paris hoping to steal designs before they hit the runway.

In Chanel's workshop, Isabelle thrives on the time-honored techniques of couture -- the pains-taking hand stitches, the perfect fall of fabric -- and the sleek, pared-down lines of "Mademoiselle's" revolutionary style. As Isabelle brings an exquisite dress to life for the fall collection -- from its embryonic origins in humble muslin to its finished form in the finest silk -- she navigates the tempestuous moods of Chanel, the cutthroat antics of her fellow workers, and her own search for love.

Just as she did in her critically acclaimed novel I Am Madame X, Gioia Diliberto brings a rich historical moment to life through her vivid and compelling storytelling. Her penetrating research and imagination are gracefully woven together in this poignant story filled with larger-than-life characters embroiled in scandalous tales, passionate love affairs, and extraordinary careers. The Collection is an exuberantly entertaining read.

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Editorial Reviews

Caroline Weber
One of this book's most engaging features is its meticulously researched account of life in a Parisian atelier: the complicated pecking order, the nasty internecine rivalries, the technical intricacies of assembling couture garments, the at times overwhelming pressures of creating beauty on a deadline. Like her heroine—who announces in the novel's memorable first line that "instead of dying, I learned how to sew"—Diliberto seems to have a genuine love for clothing as craft. She is at her best not so much when providing details of Chanel's actual styles…as when emphasizing the workmanship that gave them their allure.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Setting her second novel among the glamorous couture houses of post-WWI Paris, Diliberto (I Am Madame X) delves into a Europe inching its way back to caring about fashion. Following the death of her fiancé and family, fictitious 22-year-old seamstress Isabelle Varlet leaves her provincial town in 1919 and takes a low-level job working for Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, joining a gaggle of young women sewing until their fingers bleed to serve "Mademoiselle" in preparation for the upcoming fall collection. Dresses are depicted in magnificent detail; fellow couturiers Madeleine Vionnet and Jean Patou are vibrant and alive, and Diliberto even incorporates period fashion journalism. Still, Isabelle, on a frustrating run of bad luck, proves a bit of a snore-she's an orphan, she falls ill and loses her job, her workroom is robbed. And her love story with poet Daniel Blank feels forced. Chanel, however, is another story: with her married lovers and fiery arrogance, Mademoiselle is the true star of the book; each moment she's on the page is sheer pleasure, much like fine couture. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

This tale, told by Isabel, one of Coco Chanel's seamstresses, contrasts the deprivation of post-World War I Paris with the luxury enjoyed by the few elite still able to afford hand-stitched couture. After securing a job with Chanel, Isabel meets up with Daniel, a disabled veteran from her hometown, who introduces her to scheming, struggling fashion designer Monsieur Fabrice. Fabrice tries to steal Isabel away from Chanel, but Isabel admires Mademoiselle's work even as she creates fabulous dresses that Mademoiselle denigrates. When the offer of a raise and creative freedom isn't enough to make Isabel leave, Fabrice switches to more underhanded strategies. Diliberto (I Am Madame X) weaves together the intrigue of illegally copied designer gowns, the sweatshop conditions of couture seamstresses, and the cutthroat competition in high fashion to create a seamless and entertaining tapestry. Readers of historical fiction will want this book, particularly if they enjoy the inimitable flavor of Paris in which it is immersed. Recommended.
—Amy Ford

Kirkus Reviews
A young woman from the French provinces watches Chanel reinvent high fashion in an enjoyable second novel from Diliberto (I Am Madame X, 2003, etc.). In early 1919, orphaned Isabelle Varlet leaves her hometown of Agen and travels to Paris, armed with a letter of introduction to Chanel from a local dressmaker praising her skill with a needle. "When I started work at Chanel Modes et Coutures, I joined a revolution," Isabelle says. Women are cutting their hair and showing their ankles; Chanel's sleek, unstructured clothes have the simplicity and ease they want. Lovingly detailed descriptions of the painstaking draping, cutting and hand-sewing that goes into each couture creation are more interesting than Isabelle's personal life, which involves a not-terribly-exciting romance with a one-legged war veteran and some ferocious passes by wolfish male couturiers. Happily, most of the plot centers on rivalries within and outside of the Chanel workshop. Isabelle rises quickly to the rank of premiere (head seamstress and virtually an associate designer), but her position is threatened by a jealous coworker and the theft of her group's toiles (master patterns) just before the all-important August 1919 unveiling of the collection with which Chanel hopes to cement her reputation as France's greatest fashion designer. By far the most vivid character is Mademoiselle, as her employees call Chanel: imperious, capricious, utterly dedicated to her art yet also a shrewd businesswoman, a proto-feminist who tells Isabelle, "work and independence are what keep women young and attractive." Around her swarm jealous rivals like Jean Patou, scheming subordinates and impossible clients, whose every arbitrary demandshe expects her overworked staff to fulfill. Isabelle is nowhere near as colorful, but she's a good observer who holds back the dressing-room curtains so readers can enjoy an insider's peek at this rarified world. Anyone with even the mildest interest in clothing will enjoy this knowledgeable, readable account of a pivotal year in haute couture.
From the Publisher
"A fascinating look behind the public salons of haute couture into the workrooms of the imperious Coco Chanel herself, revealing the hierarchies, jealousies, fierce ambitions, and treacheries of an industry that trades on elegance. Seamstress Isabelle Varlet has our sympathy from the first stunning line to the bittersweet ending, and Gioia Diliberto pulls us along on a thread knotted with surprises. A thoroughly enjoyable read."
— Susan Vreeland, author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Luncheon of the Boating Party
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743280655
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 9/11/2007
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Gioia Diliberto

Gioia Diliberto has written biographies of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway, and Brenda Frazier, as well as the critically acclaimed novel I Am Madame X, based on the life of Virginie Gautreau. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son.

Good To Know

In our interview, Diliberto shared some interesting anecdotes with us:

"I was one of those dreamy children who spent all of her spare time alone in her room writing stories. My first story -- I long ago forgot what it was about -- was published in my school newspaper, when I was eight. The school was Burning Tree Elementary in suburban Maryland, and the paper, mimeographed in smelly purple ink, was The Burning Tree Ash. I was so looking forward to seeing my name in print, but when the paper came out, another girl's byline was on the story! My teacher was as horrified as I was, and couldn't understand how this tragedy had occurred. She collected all the papers from our class and throughout the school. My mother was called in, and at the end of the day she and I sat in the principal's office with stacks of The Burning Tree Ash, crossing out the other child's name and writing in mine. The following morning, the papers were redistributed to the children, and I had a lovely time receiving congratulations from my friends. From that moment, I knew I wanted to be a writer."

"I have lots of interests -- I practice yoga regularly, and I get teased about it regularly from my family. For years I've struggled to learn French, which I speak very badly, though not as badly as I play the piano."

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    1. Hometown:
      Chicago, Illinois
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 7, 1950
    2. Place of Birth:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Education:
      B.A., DePauw University, 1972; M.A., University of Maryland, 1974

Read an Excerpt

The Collection
A Novel
By Gioia Diliberto
Scribner
Copyright © 2008 Gioia Diliberto
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743280662


Prologue

Instead of dying, I learned to sew.

I was nine, ill with my first bout of consumption, and the nuns at Saint Foy, the convent school in Agen, where I'd lived for a year, had sent me home with a high fever and a horrific cough, not expecting me to return. For two months I lay in bed while my grandmother cared for me. Despite her ministrations, I grew steadily thinner and weaker, until one day she placed on my quilt a stack of white silk squares and a pincushion spiked with a threaded needle. "Here, dear, let me show you," she said, lifting my limp body from the pillows. Holding me upright, she supported the needle in my fingers and guided it through the silk. Over the next weeks, as she taught me how to baste and overcast, how to turn hems and cut bias strips for binding, and how to patch holes, my fever and cough subsided, and my strength returned. I sewed my initials, IV, in the bottom right-hand corner of each square, and my grandmother tacked them to the walls -- monuments of my survival. Determination was in the stitches and also hope. I still feel the bloom of possibility when I put needle and thread to silk.

Another grandmother would have given a sick girl a new doll or a kitten. But I come from a longline of seamstresses for whom stitching is the same as breathing. My namesake, the first Isabelle Varlet, worked at the court of Louis XVI, and, according to family lore, was imprisoned with Marie Antoinette in the Tuileries. I have a gold locket, dulled with age, that belonged to this Isabelle. Inside is an oil miniature of a lovely young girl whose fine straight hair is the same reddish-gold color as mine.

In those years before the first great war, my grandmother and I lived in a two-story cottage on a hill overlooking the road to Timbaut, a little medieval village a mile outside Agen. Our house had an attic and a wine cellar, shuttered windows, a giant oak in front and a vegetable garden in back. Chickens scratched in the yard, where a little goat tethered to the fence gave us milk each morning. Beyond, lay undulating fields of sunflowers and purple heather starred with marguerites. I lacked only parents.

My father, who made hats at a factory in Agen, suffered a heart attack several months before I was born, the event that cost my mother her life. Neither of my parents had siblings. My grandmother, though, had three sisters with whom she once owned a dressmaking shop. They were old ladies by the time I came along, and I never saw them in anything but heavy black dresses. Every day at four, the aunts came to our house for tea, drenched in black, their faces covered by black veils trailing the floor, and carrying little round hat boxes. When they stepped inside, they removed their veils and pinned black caps to their white hair. I asked them once why they dressed like death, and one of them answered, "So everyone will know we are widows!" It was their proudest accomplishment.

After my recovery, my grandmother, in consultation with the aunts, decided to tutor me at home rather than return me to Saint Foy. Over the course of the next eight years, I suffered repeated relapses and was confined for long periods to bed. My grandmother and the aunts worried and hovered over me; my every cough and sniffle sparked grave concern. Because they feared they could lose me at any time, they indulged my smallest whim, and I grew up convinced that life would give me what I asked of it.

My favorite pastime was drawing fashion sketches, inspired by illustrations in the Parisian magazines my grandmother collected. I occupied hours copying clothes from the glossy pages into my sketchbook and then inventing outfits to wear while playing dress-up. For fabric, I used scraps of serge, wool, bombazine, and cotton twill, remnants from my grandmother's shop that I kept in a large box on top of my wardrobe. Most of the pieces were musty and stained, but the box held a few treasures: a square of lush black velvet, some pink organdy, a triangle of beaded white satin, and a baguette-sized strip of mink. I often spread these gems across my bed to examine them, imagining that some day, when I was older and lived in Paris, I would incorporate them into a grown-up gown.

In the August of my tenth year, my grandmother would not let me outside due to a typhoid epidemic that had swept through our region with a wave of severe heat. I couldn't swim in the lake or go to the village to join the other children for games under the thatched roof of the old stone marché. I couldn't even go to church. One morning, I pulled out my fabric remnants and began piecing them together, carefully stitching them into a child-sized dress.

Beyond my window, the fields burned, and the sky was white and empty. Cows herded themselves under trees and dogs hid below porches. The whole world seemed to stop moving, and every day was like every other. All I had for company were my grandmother, the aunts, and Jacques Beloit, whose parents owned the patisserie in Agen and who lived up the road. Jacques was a year younger than me, a small, serious boy who often arrived at teatime with treats from his parents' shop.

On the day I squandered my fabric treasures, my grandmother and the aunts went to a funeral for one of their elderly cousins. At four o'clock I heard the door open and close and voices in the front of the house. One of them was Jacques' squeaky soprano. I thought I heard him say something about lemon tarts, a favorite of mine, so I slipped into my gown.

It had a long skirt of gray cotton that I'd taken from an old dress of my grandmother's. I used the black velvet for a bodice and the pink organdy for puffy sleeves. The triangle of white satin fit nicely into the neckline, and the strip of mink made a perfect collar.

I twirled into the parlor. Jacques was sitting on an armchair near the fireplace, munching a lemon tart and swinging his skinny white legs with the scabby knees that looked like burnt toast. He was still too young for long pants, but his wetted-down black hair, severely parted on the right, and his thick spectacles gave him the air of a little man.

I ignored him and glided over to the sofa where the aunts were perched like three blackbirds. The twins, Aunts Hélène and Marie, wore ordinary mourning, but Aunt Virginie, the eldest and wealthiest sister, sat between them in her flashiest black satin gown with the broad weepers' cuffs. Jet chandeliers hung from her ears to her collarbones; ropes of jet glittered around her neck. "It is 1868, and I am lady-in-waiting to Empress Eugénie," I announced in a grand tone.

The aunts were busy arguing, and they didn't notice me. Aunt Hélène rattled her teacup and glared at Aunt Virginie. "You needn't have piled on the mourning," she said. "Cousin Caterine was a silly little nobody."

"You just want an excuse to wear your jet earrings and necklaces," added Aunt Marie.

Aunt Virginie sat erect and unsmiling and looked down her nose at her sisters. "I can wear my jet jewelry whenever I want," she said. "I am always in high mourning for my Henri."

Henri, her husband, had been dead for decades. A prosperous doctor, he built the spacious stone house where she lived now with Aunts Hélène and Marie. Their husbands, mere barbers, also had been dead for years.

"You shouldn't drag them out for Caterine then," hissed Aunt Hélène. "It makes us look bad."

"It's not my fault your husbands couldn't afford to buy good jewelry," said Aunt Virginie.

I pirouetted dramatically. "I'm going to a ball tonight, and this is what I'll wear."

They ignored me still. "My carriage will be here soon. If you want to see my dress, you have to look now!"

Finally, the aunts laid down their teacups and considered me. No one said anything for the longest time. Then Aunt Virginie spoke. "Isabelle, ma chère, you must have been having a nightmare when you thought that up. It is not at all becoming."

"Not at all becoming," echoed Jacques. "Why don't you wear your burgundy velvet? You look pretty in that."

"What do you know about dresses?" I said, glaring at him. Then, turning my gaze to the aunts, "I copied this gown from Les Élégances Parisiennes. I can show you the picture."

"I don't care where you copied it from," said Aunt Virginie. "It's a mess."

Just then my grandmother entered the parlor carrying a fresh pot of tea. She was a small, fine-boned woman with kind hazel eyes and a pink, finely lined face. Her cottony hair was arranged in a neat chignon, and she wore a blue flowered apron over her unadorned black dress. Her husband had been a carpenter, and he couldn't afford fancy jewelry either. "I think it's lovely, Isabelle," she said. "You have a real flair with your needle."

Aunt Virginie shot her an exasperated look. "Don't lie to the child, Berthe. Do you want her to learn about elegance or not?"

"She has plenty of time to learn about elegance. She's not in Paris yet," said my grandmother.

"I've been to Paris!" cried Jacques.

I whipped around. "I don't care!"

Jacques swallowed the last bite of his lemon tart and pushed his glasses in place with a small sticky hand. "Maybe you can come with us the next time."

"Maybe you can go home," I said coldly.

"Isabelle! That's no way to talk," said my grandmother. "I want you to apologize to Jacques."

He looked at me with a hurt expression and waited. But I couldn't apologize.

I fled to my bedroom on the second floor. It was furnished simply with blue cotton curtains, a desk, a chair, a small bookcase, and a wood bureau painted white. Over the iron bed, a Victorian artist's idea of Jesus, handsome and blue-eyed with flowing brown hair, gazed heavenward, and, above it, a plaster crucifix. I said my prayers here every night, watched by my grandmother.

I took my best doll from the bureau and sat with her on the bed. She was made by Jumeau, the most prestigious doll company in France, so I called her Mademoiselle Jumeau. She had large blue eyes and slightly parted pink lips painted on a porcelain face. Her abundant blond hair was arranged in a towering pouf. Mademoiselle Jumeau had arrived on Christmas morning the previous year dressed like a princess in a décolleté white gown with an échelle of perky bows on the bodice and a billowing satin skirt. Gold high-heeled slippers glittered on her dainty feet, a purple ostrich plume frothed from her wide brimmed hat, and she carried a little beaded purse. But what delighted me most was her full set of undergarments: camisole, corset, chemise, pantaloons, tulle petticoats, stockings, and garters, all trimmed with pink ribbons and white lace.

I'd sat on the floor by the Christmas tree, dazed with happiness, absorbing the beauty of the doll, feeling it seep into my marrow, giving me strength. Whenever I was ill or sad, it made me feel better to hold Mademoiselle Jumeau and conjure up her charmed life of parties, opera performances, grand houses, and carriage rides in the Bois de Boulogne.

Now, I took off my play gown and changed into an old brown cotton dress. Then I sat on my bed with Mademoiselle Jumeau. I was in the middle of fantasizing about riding with her in a gold-and-glass landau on the way to a ball, when there was a soft knock on the door. I opened it, and there stood Jacques.

"Let's play something," he said.

I left Jacques in the doorway and flopped on my bed. "I thought you were going home."

"Your grandmother said I could stay." Jacques stepped into the room. "What do you want to do?"

"I don't know," I said. "Make a new dress for Mademoiselle Jumeau, I guess. Do you want to help?"

"Sewing is for girls." Jacques took a volume of fairy tales from my bookcase and sat on the hooked rug in front of my bed with crossed legs.

"Then you can just sit there and look stupid, you stupid boy."

"You're stupid," said Jacques.

I took the unbecoming play dress out of my wardrobe and began undoing the seams with a pair of scissors that had belonged to my father. My grandmother said that each time the scissors clicked my father smiled down at me from heaven, and as I worked, I felt bolstered by this unseen love. When I'd finished, I stripped Mademoiselle Jumeau to her camisole and pantaloons. Then I fitted the piece of beaded white satin around her waist, pinning it into a skirt. Next, I cut a piece of the black velvet to make a bodice, keeping the rest for a cape, which I trimmed in mink.

An hour went by. When I'd completed the gown and had it on Mademoiselle Jumeau, I showed it to Jacques. "Isn't she pretty?"

He studied her for a moment, then looked at me with a wondering expression. "She looks just like you," he said.

Two weeks later, the heat broke. A driving rain pounded the village, and the days turned gray and cool, killing the germs that hid in the trees, or so my grandmother said. It was safe now for me to go outside, and my first excursion was to Sunday mass. "I'm so happy to see you, Isabelle. It's been a while," said the gentle old priest, as he greeted me after the service.

I'd brought Mademoiselle Jumeau and held her up for the priest to admire. "We've been cooped up for weeks, and we're very happy to be out," I said.

I followed my grandmother and the aunts down the stone steps of the church and across the village square to a small shaded park. My relatives settled on benches to gossip with their friends, and I wandered to the old thatched-roof marché where two teams of children, separated by a white chalk line, were about to start a game of prisoners' base.

My eyes were drawn to the handsome boy standing in the square at the marché's far end. All sinewy legs and arms, summer freckles in a riot on his face, he looked to be about twelve and had wavy auburn hair and pale, even features. He stood absolutely still as a whistle pierced the air, followed by shouts and the scrape of leather shoes on stone. It took only a few minutes for one of his teammates to scramble through the crowd to him. Then, with a swiftness that startled me, he ran to his team with fists shot triumphantly in the air.

Suddenly, on the sidelines a beautiful little girl appeared in a white organdy frock with a blue moiré sash tied around her waist. A smaller ribbon the same color was tied in her curly dark hair. The boy called to her, inviting her into the game. She hesitated a moment, then darted in, taking her place beside him. The sun bounced around them as they ran, filling their hair with light and bleaching out the boy's freckles. I felt a stab of jealousy and hung back.

"Why don't you play with them?" said a voice behind me.

I turned around to face a tall, slender man with a black mustache and thick gray hair. "My dress is ugly," I said, pointing my chin toward the beautiful girl. "It is not as pretty as her dress."

The man laughed. "That is, indeed, a very pretty dress," he said finally. "But it is a city dress. It is not for the country. She is wicked to show off by wearing it here and making you feel badly."

I thought I wouldn't mind being wicked if I could have such a dress.

The following Sunday, I convinced my grandmother to let me wear my best dress -- a burgundy velvet with a crocheted white collar. After mass, I went to the marché to look for the handsome boy and was pleased to see him. A game of prisoners' base was under way, and I prayed to God that the boy would notice me, just see me. A minute later, he ran up to me. "My team is short one," he said. "Do you want to play?"

Carefully, I stood Mademoiselle Jumeau against a stone post and followed the boy into the game. I got only halfway across our court, when a child from the other team tagged me. "Don't worry, you'll do better next time," called the boy from the far end of the marché.

That afternoon at tea, Jacques announced, "Isabelle is in love."

"I am not!" I cried.

"Love is for grown-ups," said my grandmother, as she stirred a cube of sugar into her tea.

"She's in love with the tall boy with freckles," said Jacques. He held his pain au chocolat with both hands and took a large bite.

"That's Daniel Blank. Madame Duval's nephew. He lives in Paris and is staying with her for the summer," said Aunt Virginie. Then, turning to me, "I don't blame you, Isabelle. He's a very handsome boy."

At the mention of the boy's name, my face turned scarlet. "I'm not in love with anybody."

But I lived for Sundays. During our games, when I thought Daniel wasn't looking, I stole glances at him, my heart swelling at the sight of his narrow, fine-boned face. I loved the lock of auburn hair that flopped across his forehead and how he pushed it aside with the back of his hand. He was a head taller than the tallest of the village children and their natural leader. He dominated our games with his quick, graceful footwork, but Jacques and the other boys didn't seem to resent him. He never made them feel inferior. In addition to being the handsomest boy in the world, he also was the kindest.

I decided to sew him a shirt. I found two yards of blue calico in a trunk in the attic and made a pattern based on an old shirt of my grandfather's. I fit it on Jacques, though allowing for Daniel's larger proportions. I told Jacques that Daniel, admiring the dress I'd made for Mademoiselle Jumeau, had asked me to make it, but that it was a secret. No one was supposed to know, especially my grandmother and the aunts. "You never made me a shirt," said Jacques. His eyes were big and moist behind his glasses.

"You're only nine," I said.

"I'd still like a new shirt."

"When you're older."

I worked on Daniel's shirt for a week, and when I finished, I spent another week worrying about how to give it to him. I decided the only way was for Jacques to wear it to church and afterward take it off and present it to Daniel in the marché.

"What am I supposed to tell him?" asked Jacques.

"You don't have to tell him anything," I said. "I'll write a note and pin it to the sleeve."

I agonized over the note for hours. Finally, I wrote simply, "Please accept this gift from the needle of Isabelle Varlet."

I gave the shirt to Jacques on Saturday. He told his mother that I had made it for him (even though it was several sizes too big) and that he had promised me he'd wear it to church, that it would break my heart if he didn't.

On Sunday I awoke with a foggy head and scratchy throat, but I said nothing. If my grandmother thought I was coming down with something, she never would have let me out of the house.

In church, I was relieved to see the blue calico peeking from Jacques' brown serge jacket, and after the service, he ducked behind a tree to remove Daniel's shirt. Children ran about the marché, shouting and squealing. Fall was in the air, and leaves blew across the ground with pebbles and wads of debris. My eyes darted around for Daniel, but he was nowhere in sight. "He's not here!" I moaned, flopping onto the cold stone.

Jacques dropped down next to me. "What do we do now?" he asked.

"Wait. Maybe he'll show up."

"He's probably gone back to Paris."

I was contemplating this dreadful thought, when I felt a presence behind us. Madame Beloit, Jacques' mother. "Why did you take off your shirt? You'll catch your death," she scolded.

I started to cough, first quietly, then with great convulsive hacks. "Look, Isabelle is sick already," Madame Beloit said. "You foolish, foolish children."

Madame Beloit ran off to fetch my grandmother and the aunts, who put me to bed as soon as we reached home. I slept for a long time, and it was only when I awoke and reached for Mademoiselle Jumeau that I realized I'd left her behind in the marché.

Jacques went back for her the next day, but all he found was Mademoiselle Jumeau's battered wood body. She looked like the victim of a toy guillotine. In addition to her beautiful porcelain head, her dress and shoes were missing, and mud smeared her undergarments. "I looked everywhere for the head," said Jacques. "A dog probably chewed it off."

Immediately, my grandmother sent away to Paris for a new Jumeau doll. I didn't forget about the first one, though, and when I was feeling better, we had a funeral for her. I sewed a simple shroud for the body and used the blue silk-lined box she'd come in as a coffin. Jacques dug a hole under the oak in the front yard, and the aunts arrived for the ceremony huddled in mourning coats against the fall chill. Aunt Virginie had draped fox pieces over her shoulders and also donned her best jewelry. My grandmother read from the Bible, and we all sang "Heart of Jesus, Meek and Mild," as Jacques laid the coffin in the ground and shoveled dirt over it.

The late afternoon had arrived, throwing long gray shadows across the yard. Aunt Hélène had scowled at Aunt Virginie's furs and jet jewelry throughout the service, and as we walked back to the house, she said, "It is one thing to pile on the mourning for cousin Caterine, and quite another to do it for a doll."

After that summer, Jacques started boarding school in Bordeaux. For a while I saw him when he came home on holidays, but as the years passed, he visited me less and less. During the rest of my time in Timbaut, I never saw Daniel again, though I got to know his aunt, a tall, efficient dressmaker named Marie-France Duval. When I was seventeen my grandmother sent me to Agen to become her apprentice, and it is because of her I have a story to tell.

Copyright © 2007 by Gioia Diliberto



Continues...


Excerpted from The Collection by Gioia Diliberto Copyright © 2008 by Gioia Diliberto. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Introduction

Discussion Questions

1. "I wasn't prepared to enter a world that operated on a hierarchy as rigid as the Catholic Church. If Mademoiselle was the pope, the vendeuses were the cardinals; the premières and secondes, the bishops; the mains, the priests; the arpètes, the acolytes" (page 27). Discuss the importance of hierarchy, both to the House of Chanel and to the plot of the novel.

2. Do you think Isabelle belonged in the world of haute couture or do you think she was too provincial for such a cutthroat industry? What similarities did her life have to that of Chanel?

3. "What had started out as a symbol of grief was evolving into the postwar standard of elegance" (page 38). What else does black symbolize in The Collection? Where are there great splashes of color in this novel?

4. Why do you think "seamstresses are obsessed with marriage" (page 68)? How did Isabelle reflect or reject this stereotype? Did the characters of Jacques and Daniel help to influence or limit Isabelle's independence?

5. What single item of her mother's did Isabelle possess? How was it significant to Isabelle's craft and success?

6. "Often, when I sewed, I would slip into a meditative state, almost as if I'd become one with the fabric and thread. At these times, I felt a kind of release that was almost like happiness" (page 131). Is sewing an escape for Isabelle? Or is it a trap that keeps her within a certain class level?

7. "You can have too much of anything, even happiness" (page 134). What does Mademoiselle have too much of in this book? Do you think this novel is a fair representation of Chanel? Why or why not?

8. "I forced myself to thinknot of what was happening, but instead of Angeline" (page 231). What did Angeline represent to Isabelle?

9. Discuss the themes of The Collection — female strength and independence, simplicity creating sophistication, ugliness draped in beauty.

10. "I had taken a bold step tonight and more bold steps would be needed if I was to move away from darkness" (page 256). What bold steps did Isabelle take in this novel? What other bold steps did you want her to take? Were you satisfied with the outcomes in her personal and professional lives?

Reader Tips

So, sew!

Join a sewing circle or take a sewing class.

Surf couture

View the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2005 Chanel exhibit online at www.metmuseum.org/special.

Locate Angeline

Find the missing picture from the 1919 Vogue article on page 267: "Great success has attended the absolutely simple model of burgundy crepe de chine sketched at the left on page 56."

Quote Quiz: Which character in the book said,

"Elegance means something is as perfect on the wrong side as on the right." (Answer on page 31.)

"It is not healthy to be only with women, to have no life outside of work..." (Answer on page 70.)

"Everyone's a survivor of something." (Answer on page 94.)

"Style is French, just like painting is French." (Answer on page 161.)

"When the fashion history books are written, Mademoiselle will be a footnote. She doesn't even know how to sew." (Answer on page 168.)

"It's the Americans who are desperate for French couture." (Answer on page 216.)

"It might cost a guy three hundred francs to feed himself and his lady, but she's gotta put out a fortune just to get dressed." (Answer on page 221.)

"It's only a dress; it's not your life." (Answer on page 247.)

To learn more about the book, visit the author at www.gioiadiliberto.com

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. "I wasn't prepared to enter a world that operated on a hierarchy as rigid as the Catholic Church. If Mademoiselle was the pope, the vendeuses were the cardinals; the premières and secondes, the bishops; the mains, the priests; the arpètes, the acolytes" (page 27). Discuss the importance of hierarchy, both to the House of Chanel and to the plot of the novel.

2. Do you think Isabelle belonged in the world of haute couture or do you think she was too provincial for such a cutthroat industry? What similarities did her life have to that of Chanel?

3. "What had started out as a symbol of grief was evolving into the postwar standard of elegance" (page 38). What else does black symbolize in The Collection? Where are there great splashes of color in this novel?

4. Why do you think "seamstresses are obsessed with marriage" (page 68)? How did Isabelle reflect or reject this stereotype? Did the characters of Jacques and Daniel help to influence or limit Isabelle's independence?

5. What single item of her mother's did Isabelle possess? How was it significant to Isabelle's craft and success?

6. "Often, when I sewed, I would slip into a meditative state, almost as if I'd become one with the fabric and thread. At these times, I felt a kind of release that was almost like happiness" (page 131). Is sewing an escape for Isabelle? Or is it a trap that keeps her within a certain class level?

7. "You can have too much of anything, even happiness" (page 134). What does Mademoiselle have too much of in this book? Do you think this novel is a fair representation of Chanel? Why or why not?

8. "I forced myself to thinknot of what was happening, but instead of Angeline" (page 231). What did Angeline represent to Isabelle?

9. Discuss the themes of The Collection — female strength and independence, simplicity creating sophistication, ugliness draped in beauty.

10. "I had taken a bold step tonight and more bold steps would be needed if I was to move away from darkness" (page 256). What bold steps did Isabelle take in this novel? What other bold steps did you want her to take? Were you satisfied with the outcomes in her personal and professional lives?

Reader Tips

So, sew!

Join a sewing circle or take a sewing class.

Surf couture

View the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2005 Chanel exhibit online at www.metmuseum.org/special.

Locate Angeline

Find the missing picture from the 1919 Vogue article on page 267: "Great success has attended the absolutely simple model of burgundy crepe de chine sketched at the left on page 56."

Quote Quiz: Which character in the book said,

"Elegance means something is as perfect on the wrong side as on the right." (Answer on page 31.)

"It is not healthy to be only with women, to have no life outside of work..." (Answer on page 70.)

"Everyone's a survivor of something." (Answer on page 94.)

"Style is French, just like painting is French." (Answer on page 161.)

"When the fashion history books are written, Mademoiselle will be a footnote. She doesn't even know how to sew." (Answer on page 168.)

"It's the Americans who are desperate for French couture." (Answer on page 216.)

"It might cost a guy three hundred francs to feed himself and his lady, but she's gotta put out a fortune just to get dressed." (Answer on page 221.)

"It's only a dress; it's not your life." (Answer on page 247.)

To learn more about the book, visit the author at www.gioiadiliberto.com

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

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  • Posted February 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Very Enjoyable

    Even though I felt the characters could have been developed further; I still think this book is enjoyable and what I would call a comfortable read.

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