Sunday, July 7, 2013

Studio Saint-Ex, Ania Szado

Studio Saint-ExI haven't even brought a book. I rarely do for the flight to Montreal, so short there's hardly time to finish a page without a pert stewardess interrupting with a buckle-unbuckle update or to stuff you with another canape. 

"With Paris under occupation by Hitler’s troops, New York’s Mayor La Guardia has vowed to turn his city into the new fashion capital of the world. A handful of American designers are set to become the industry’s first names, and Mignonne Lachapelle is determined to be among them. Her ambition and ethics are clear and uncomplicated, until she falls for the celebrated and tormented adventurer Captain Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who, six months after the surrender of France, has fled Europe’s ashen skies after flying near-suicidal reconnaissance missions for the French Air Force. In New York, he writes a new book on the fall of France, Flight to Arras (it becomes a number-one best seller) and collects (a year late) his 1939 National Book Award for his Wind, Sand and Stars,a poetic account of his flying escapades over North Africa and South America (by the time of his arrival in New York, in early 1941, the book has sold 250,000 copies). To distract himself from his malaise about France and at being in exile, and at his publisher’s offhand suggestion, he begins work on a children’s story about a “petit bonhomme” in the Sahara Desert . . .Nothing about Mig’s relationship with Saint-Ex is simple, not his turmoil and unhappiness about being in New York and grounded from wartime skies, nor Mig’s tempestuous sexual encounter with Antoine and the blurring boundaries of their artistic pursuits, ­or Saint-Exupéry’s wife who insidiously entangles Mig in her schemes to reclaim her husband. The greatest complication of Mig’s bond with Saint-Exupéry comes in the form of a deceptively simple manuscript: Antoine’s work in progress about a little boy, a prince, who’s fallen to earth on a journey across the planets . . ."

The only novel of Saint-Exupery's that I've read is in fact The Little Prince, although I do also own a copy of Night Flight. Much like The Paris Wife, I was very excited for a novel focusing on the women in a famous author's life (even though Mignonne is in this case fictional), and much like The Paris Wife, I was kind of disappointed. It seems to be in vogue now; there are these two books, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, and probably more. It's an interesting and certainly worthwhile endeavor, but somehow, these authors never seem to able to write a really good, solid novel. The Paris Wife was good but not great; same with Studio Saint-Ex. It had its points, but the writing was strange. 

Unlike The Paris Wife, the historical world of New York in the 1940's didn't really come to life for me. There wasn't enough description, there weren't enough little everyday incidents to make the book seem realistic. If The Paris Wife's flaws were not enough description of character, Studio Saint-Ex's were not enough historical description. 

Enough talk of Paula McLain's novel. Studio Saint-Ex is of a different type; the writing is really different. It tends to flowery phrases and sweeping descriptions of clothing, which was nice, but I wanted more description of the city itself. That said, the descriptions of clothing were lovely. Overall though, the writing was weak. There some sentences that when strung together, made for jerky, discombulated writing. Yet in some parts it wasn't terrible. 

What made me very uneasy was the fact that nowhere is it said that Mignonne is a fictional character; the novel implies that she actually was a woman in Saint-Exupery's life. I thought so too until I looked it up. It was very misleading.

The characters were also kind of poorly portrayed, although the author did succeed in making me hate Consuelo. Yes, she's been wronged, and very badly, but she doesn't have to be so petty. In one scene, she takes her new lover to a club that her husband frequents. The fact that she was ditched also made me dislike Saint-Exupery too, although he was certainly interesting. 

There was something charming about Studio Saint-Ex; even if the world wasn't as well portrayed as I would have liked, I still caught glimpses of its many facets and of the frustration during World War II. There was a very interesting part at the beginning of the novel; Mignonne's mentor and rival disparages those who would dress in simple, shapeless attire merely because there's a war on. In fact, she argues, during war one should wear more fancy clothing. Dressing up in fine clothes is a sign of resistance. I don't agree with that entirely, and it's not very practical either; after all, luxury costs money which is in short supply during war. But it is a kind of beautiful image, flaunting wealth against the enemy. 

Overall Studio Saint-Ex was a good but not great historical novel. The story was compelling, the way it was told decidedly less so. I would recommend it if you're interested in Saint-Exupery. I certainly learned a lot about his life. 

Disclosure: I received a review copy from Knopf. 

350 pages. 

Rating: ***

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