When a novel begins with a back room abortion on a 13 year old girl, you know the author isn’t mucking around.
Lace by Shirley Conran was a blockbuster or ‘bonkbuster’ of the 1980s and a seminal work in women’s fiction. The novel follows the lives of five women – Maxine, Pagan, Kate and Judy – from when they meet at a finishing school in Switzerland in the 1950s through three decades of their inter-twining lives. Husbands, lovers and jobs may come and go but the bonds these women formed over one tumultuous school year are the rivets that hold them together.
The fifth woman is Lili. No last name, no identity except that which other people project on to her, she is an elusive film-star and the one who summons all four women together to her apartment in New York to utter the intriguing question “Which one of you bitches is my mother?”
We then leap back in time to when the four women first met and then follow them through the decades. After their life-changing year in Switzerland, each girl follows a different path. Maxine returns to Paris before studying interior design. She start she own successful business, which is how she meets her impoverished aristocratic husband and sets out to revive and save their ancient family business. Kate and Pagan return to debutante seasons in London but will spend the next 20 years being confused and unfulfilled until the right job, the right man and the spark of passion for a cause lights them up. Judy did not go to finishing school but works every minute of every day to make her life better, starts out in fashion but moves swiftly into PR. Is is her know-how and determination that drives the other three to be equally successful.
Conran skates easily over the interweaving timelines, jumping back and forth by decades to start back at the beginning of one woman’s story to tell the full tale. To look at the front cover, you would think Lace was nothing more than any Jackie Collins or Jilly Cooper novel. Certainly there is a liberal dose of titillating sex scenes, including an allusion to a goldfish which is intriguing if not RSPCA-approved. Not that all the sex is positive. The number of rape scenes is also a little shocking. But what is wonderful about this book is that although the characters may be successful glamorous women in their forties, they may not have travelled a smooth or happy road. In their torments and triumphs, there is something every women can related to.
More than a glamour or erotic novel, Lace is about the friendships that bind women together over a lifetime. Throwing away any notions that women can’t be friends because of jealousy or insecurities, the relationships in Lace are affirming. Those true and lasting friendships when you can not see a person for years but pick up just where you left off. Lace is a absorbing novel you will want to re-read and wallow in year after year.
Available now: Allen & Unwin RRP$22.99
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- Book review: Lace by Shirley Conran | sunshine and gin | 14 January , 2014