|The Last Collection / Jeanne Mackin
New York, NY : Berkley, 2019
Another novel with fashion at its heart, this one was a clear winner for me. Lily Sutter is a young widow, and a teacher who leaves her post when her brother Charlie writes that he needs her in Paris. She's also an artist, and her eager rediscovery of Paris in 1938 is full of colour and painting and fashion...alongside the looming threat of war.
She arrives in Paris to find that her charming brother wants to offer her a dress by Chanel, but she prefers the more artistic flair of Schiaparelli. Charlie's married girlfriend Ania, a rich society wife, follows Lily's lead and starts wearing the upstart designer's clothing, putting Lily in the middle of a rivalry between Chanel and Schiaparelli. This rivalry is not only about their differing views of the role of fashion, but is exacerbated by their views on prewar politics.
I'm not always impressed by books that take real life people as characters; I find it akin to stealing someone's life in many cases. But here the two designers, while important to the story, don't seem to act outside of their historically known characters. And the author focuses much more on Lily's journey and how these two people are important to her story than on trying to recreate the internal lives of these real people. And I found that it worked because of this focus.
The emotional arc of the story is all Lily -- the early loss of her husband, her relationship to her brother, the role she plays when she gets a job at Schiaparelli's salon and also interacts with Chanel, and her own burgeoning love affair that is complicated by the presence of Nazis in France. The war is a key part of the book, but I still wouldn't call this a War Story. It's a different angle on this time in history, as Lily, an American, sees things from the outside.
I really enjoyed the solid historical context of this story, as well as the accomplished writing. Mackin tells this story without sentimentalizing or exaggerating historical facts. She also represents the nuance in the decisions that both designers made at the start of the war, and the unexpected effects of their decisions on others -- for example, that Chanel closed up overnight to remove to a hotel with her German officer lover for the duration of the war, which immediately put 200 employees out of work at a difficult time. That was one aspect I hadn't immediately considered, being more focused on Chanel's association with the Germans in the war.
The strength of the book lies in the focus on Lily's storyline; it has the emotional weight and complexity to stand on its own. The author could have invented designers or even had Lily working at something else and it still would have worked without the 'celebrity' aspect. Although I must say I really liked that part of things. Lily, as an artist, sees in colour and feeling, and her impressions of the fashions and the fabrics were satisfying to read. She refers to colours as leitmotifs in both designers' lives (Schiaparelli is synonymous with Shocking Pink while Chanel is known for her Little Black Dress, for example), and the real collections of both designers in these years are discussed and described. Lily also ties colour to emotion, reflecting her own interactions with Paris and her new life. There is a lot of engaging description of outfits, designs and even Lily's own paintings, with colour and line at the forefront.
While there are many serious and difficult moments in this book, it ends with a satisfying resolution that won't leave you depressed for days -- it's not that kind of WWII novel. It's a smart, fashionable story with a strong emotional heart. If you have someone in your life who enjoys well structured historical fiction and loves fashion and/or art, I'd highly recommend this as a perfect holiday gift.