Elegance: A Novel

Elegance: A Novel

3.5 18
by Kathleen Tessaro, Elizabeth McGovern, Elizabeth Mcgovern
     
 

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Louise Canova should be happy and in love. But her actor husband seems to be growing distant and she doesn't know why. Is it her fault? Riddled with uncertainty, the insecurity she thought she'd left behind in adolescence comes back to haunt her.

But when she discovers a faded volume titled Elegance in a secondhand bookshop, she believes she's found the

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Overview

Louise Canova should be happy and in love. But her actor husband seems to be growing distant and she doesn't know why. Is it her fault? Riddled with uncertainty, the insecurity she thought she'd left behind in adolescence comes back to haunt her.

But when she discovers a faded volume titled Elegance in a secondhand bookshop, she believes she's found the answers. Written by French fashion expert Madame Dariaux, Elegance is an encyclopedia of style that promises to transform plain women into creatures of grace and poise. From Accessories to Zippers, there's nothing Madame can't advise upon — including inattentive husbands, false friends, and the absolute importance of seductive lingerie.

The lessons Louise learns have a surprising effect and an outcome she never expected. Within the book's pages lie clues to her past, and she discovers that everything, even elegance, has its price.

Editorial Reviews

USA Today
Through vivid descriptions, lively mishaps and devastating details, Tessaro serves up a witty, original, fast-moving debut. Louise's story lightheartedly reveals the frailties and the possibilities in all of us. She takes a clever, sometimes funny, sometimes mortifying look at familial relationships, the bonds of friendship, sexuality and self-identity. — Kelly DiNardo
Publishers Weekly
A frumpy, depressed woman is reborn as an assertive diva in Tessaro's debut novel, thanks to a 40-year-old style manual she discovers in a second-hand bookstore. Louise Canova is an American woman from Pittsburgh who lives in London with her chilly actor husband. Louise once dabbled in acting herself, but now works at a theater box office. She's overweight, badly dressed, has purely platonic relations with her husband and is surrounded by more-glamorous-than-thou types-her friend Nicki, a former model; her mother-in-law, a former model and a socialite-who condescend to her. Everything changes, however, when Louise discovers Elegance, a fashion guide from 1964 written by Genevieve Dariaux, a legendary (and fictional) Coco Chanel-like arbiter of taste. Quoting liberally from the guidebook, Tessaro writes a lighthearted contemporary version of Pygmalion. In this case, Louise is her own Professor Higgins, and using Dariaux's amusingly anachronistic (is anyone wearing veils these days?) yet timeless advice ("being beautiful is no guarantee of happiness in this world"), she changes her appearance, her self-image and her entire life. The author introduces each chapter with a relevant excerpt from the manual. This structure sometimes seems a bit forced, especially when Louise's husband turns out to be gay (there is no worthwhile advice from Madam Dariaux on that situation), but on the whole the book is a lively, irresistible read. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Louise Canova has never realized how classy and fashionable she isn't until she wanders into a secondhand London bookstore and accidentally discovers a remarkable volume about how to be elegant. Empowered by the advice of Madame Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, a sophisticated French expert on grace and style, Louise does exactly what the book says to do. Ironically, in her imitation of elegance, she somehow manages to find her true self. Fans of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary will love this unique Pygmalion tale, an impressive debut novel. Each chapter begins with a quote from Madame Dariaux's manual. The contrast between Louise's earthy, Pittsburgh vocabulary and the cool, aloof text on elegance is almost as startling as that between the depressed, insecure Louise at the beginning of the book and the confident Louise at the end. Published in 1964, Elegance is an actual handbook written by the real Madame Dariaux, now a chic and sophisticated 88-year-old. Tessaro, an expatriate American, lives in London. Recommended for fiction collections of all sizes. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/03.]-Shelley Mosley, Glendale P.L., AZ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Dowdy wife gets dolled up. Louise Canova is dimly aware that her marriage has grown cold--her husband Colin, a successful but dull actor, calls her Pumpkin, or, less kindly, Ouise (pronounced "Wheeze"). He doesn’t even care when his mother-in-law, a still-glamorous former model, is icily condescending toward his unhappy wife. Oh, what can this little brown wren do? (She has no idea.) Then, dawdling in a secondhand bookstore in London, Louise comes across a slim, jasmine-scented volume from 1964, penned by the ineffably soignée directress of a French couture house, and she experiences an epiphany. In A to Z format, the very grand and deeply conservative Madame Genevieve Antoine Dariaux offers advice on all aspects of dress and fashion, which Louise takes quite seriously. Fur-trimmed suits with gloves for afternoon? Six-acre peignoirs for those intimate evenings? Maybe her husband, if only she could afford such sartorial splendor, would notice her. But Colin seems, well, embarrassed that she would even want to change. And he knows perfectly well there’s nothing at all wrong with their relationship. On the other hand, if Louise wants to see a marriage counselor by herself, he sees nothing wrong with that. Now, if she would just listen to his remarkable plan for organizing the kitchen garbage: big bits of rubbish in the big bin, small bits in the small bin . . . . Louise’s thoughts are understandably elsewhere as she remembers ill-fated shopping excursions with her mother in Pittsburgh. Her mother was a little brown wren, too, a scientist who cut her own hair and wore frumpy clothes (never mind her intellect or education: this trite tale never questions why appearance is so important--it justis). Perhaps, muses Louise, that’s why she never thought about taking care of herself, remaining now unlovely and unloved. It’s all very sad--until other men begin to notice her. Oh, dear: Should she let Oliver take her out for a drink? Should she spurn the attention of the much younger Eddie? Familiar fare, and stale indeed. Agent: Johnny Geller/Curtis Brown

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060554187
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
07/01/2003
Edition description:
Abridged, 4 Cassettes
Product dimensions:
4.38(w) x 7.18(h) x 1.27(d)

Read an Excerpt

Elegance

A Novel
By Kathleen Tessaro

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 Kathleen Tessaro All right reserved. ISBN: 0060522259

Chapter One

It's a freezing cold night in February and my husband and I are standing outside of the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

"Here we are," he says. But neither of us move.

"Look," he bargains with me, "if it's dreadful, we'll just leave. We'll stay for one drink and go. We'll use a code word: potato. When you want to go, just say the word potato in a sentence and then I'll know you want to leave. OK?"

"I could always just tell you I want to leave," I point out.

He frowns at me. "Louise, I know you don't want to do this, but you could at least make an effort. She's my mother, for Christ's sake and I promised we'd come. It's not every day that you're part of a major photographic exhibition. Besides, she really likes you. She's always saying how the three of us ought to get together."

The three of us.

I sigh and stare at my feet. I'm dying to say it: potato. Potato, potato, potato.

I know it's a complete cliché to hate your mother-in-law. And I abhor a cliché. But when your mother-in-law is a former model from the 1950s who specializes in reducing you to a blithering pulp each time you see her, then there is really only one word that springs to mind. And that word ispotato.

He wraps an arm around me. "This really isn't a big deal, Pumpkin."

I wish he wouldn't call me Pumpkin.

But there are some things you do, if not for love, than at least for a quiet life. Besides, we'd paid for a cab, he'd had a shave, and I was wearing a long gray dress I normally kept in a plastic dry cleaning bag. We 'd come too far to turn back now.

I lift my head and force a smile. "All right, let's go." We walk past the two vast security guards and step inside.

I strip off my brown woolly overcoat and hand it to the coat check attendant, discreetly passing my hand over my tummy for a spot check. I can feel the gentle protrusion. Too much pasta tonight. Comfort food. Comfort eating. Why tonight, of all nights? I try to suck it in but it requires too much effort. So I give up.

I hold out my hand. He takes it, and together we walk into the cool, white world of the Twentieth-Century Galleries. The buzz and hum of the crowd engulfs us as we make our way across the pale marble floor. Young men and women, dressed in crisp white shirts, swing by balancing trays of champagne and in an alcove a jazz trio are plucking out the sophisticated rhythms of "Mack the Knife."

Breathe, I remind myself, just breathe.

And then I see them: the photographs. Rows and rows of stunning black and white portraits and fashion shots, a collection of the famous photographer Horst's work from the 1930s through to the late 60s, mounted against the stark white walls, smooth and silvery in their finish. The flawless, aloof faces gaze back at me. I long to linger, to lose myself in the world of the pictures.

However, my husband grips my shoulder and propels me forward, waving to his mother, Mona, who's standing with a group of stylish older women at the bar.

"Hello!" he shouts, suddenly animated, coming over all jolly and larger than life. The tired, silent man in the cab is replaced by a dazzling, gregarious, social raconteur.

Mona spots us and waves back, a little half scooping royal wave, the signal for us to join her. Turning our shoulders sideways, we squeeze through the crowd, negotiating drinks and lit cigarettes. As we come into range I pull a face that I hope passes as a smile.

She is wonderfully, fantastically, superhumanly preserved. Her abundant silver-white hair is swept back from her face in an elaborate chignon, making her cheekbones appear even more prominent and her eyes feline. She holds herself perfectly straight, as if she spent her entire childhood nailed to a board and her black trouser suit betrays the casual elegance of Donna Karan's tailoring. The women around her are all cut from the same, expensive cloth and I suspect we're about to join in on a kind of aging models' reunion.

"Darling!" She takes her son's arm and kisses him on both cheeks. "I'm so pleased you could make it!" My husband gives her a little squeeze.

"We wouldn't miss it for the world, would we, Louise?"

"Certainly not!" I sound just that bit too bright to be authentic.

She acknowledges me with a brisk nod of the head, then turns her attention back to her son. "How's the play, darling? You must be exhausted! I saw Gerald and Rita the other day; they said you were the best Constantine they'd ever seen. Did I tell you that?" She turns to her collection of friends. "My son's in The Seagull at the National! If you ever want tickets, you must let me know."

He holds his hands up. "It's completely sold out. There's not a thing I can do."

Out comes the lower lip. "Not even for me?"

"Well," he relents, "I can try."

She lights a cigarette. "Good boy. Oh, let me introduce you, this is Carmen, she's the one with the elephants on the far wall over there and this is Dorian, you'll recognize at least her back from the famous corset shot, and Penny, well, you were the face of 1959, weren't you!"

We all laugh and Penny sighs wistfully, extracting a packet of Dunhills from her bag. "Those were the days! Lend me a light, Mona?"

Mona passes her a gold, engraved lighter and my husband shakes his head ...

(Continues...)


Excerpted from Elegance by Kathleen Tessaro
Copyright © 2003 by Kathleen Tessaro
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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