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Review: Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado

Studio Saint-Ex
by Ania Szado

Mignonne Lachapelle, a fresh-faced fashion designer, has had absolutely no luck finding a job after finishing school one year ago. World War II is in full swing, and the fashion industry can't afford to take risks. She is forced to take a job working for her former teacher, a harsh woman who stole Mignonne's designs in order to launch her own company. It isn't just Mignonne's talent that her professor envies, but her connections in New York's French community. It is through this network of family and friends that Mignonne reconnects with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an renowned pilot and author. She once tutored him in English; now, the relationship has grown into a romance. Mignonne is also drawn into the company of the author's wife, the beautiful Consuelo; aware of the girl's infatuation with her husband, Consuelo toys with Mignonne, one minute a friendly patroness of fashion and the next a domineering business partner. As the two women vie for Saint-Exupéry's attention, he longs only to fly into war to defend France. To pass the time, he turns to work on a new book, a fable about a prince and a rose and a pilot lost in the Sahara...

Since Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his wife are both historical figures, I initially thought that Mignonne Lachapelle was, too, and thought, “Odd, I don't recall this designer's name from all those fashion history classes I took.” Well, there's good reason for that – she's fictional. The Saint-Exupérys enjoyed an open marriage, and there were extramarital affairs on both sides – and Ania Szado took advantage of this fact to introduce her own character into their tumultuous story.

I admired Mignonne Lachapelle's drive and desire to become a top fashion designer. She was willing to work for a woman who admitted to stealing her designs – and work hard, mind you – and for no pay just to get experience under her belt. That's wild. I'm not sure I've ever had such a driving passion. Sometimes, though, I wanted to shake Mignonne for being such a doormat.

Consuelo is the most interesting of the three main characters. She's an emotional mess, no matter how beautiful and polished she appears on the outside. She and her husband fight constantly, and while the battles fuel their passion it also makes it impossible for them to interact like normal human beings, to the point that they are often estranged. She's so frustrated by their distance that it only fuels her manic episodes, childish antics and quest for love from other men. I found this cycle fascinating. Every once in a while, Consuelo would have a quiet episode and I'd think, “Oh! She's about to have a breakthrough!” But no, the wife of Saint-Exupéry would always back away and turn her thoughts elsewhere.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry remains always a trifle aloof. He speaks beautifully – I wonder if the author lifted actual passages from his letters or just copied his style? - and has such an elegant, descriptive voice that I always looked forward to his appearances. I found The Little Prince quite charming when I read it a few years ago, and it was interesting to see the parallels that Szado drew between the title character and Antoine's relationships with these two women.

The story builds to the climax of a fashion show, based on The Little Prince that is designed by Mignonne, stars Consuelo, and is narrated by Antoine. The trouble for me was that I could never shake from my mind the thought, “This never happened. This is not true.” I don't know why this distracted me so much – maybe because a fashion show themed around the story seems like such a great idea, and the fact that it only came to fruition in the imagination of the author was frustrating? That's the trouble with using historical figures in a work of fiction. If Mignonne had been kept an anonymous fashion designer, one who achieved mid-level success but never fully broke out, I think the story would have been more believable. Instead, Mignonne is rocketed to success because of her collaboration with the Saint-Exupérys, so much so that a retrospective of her designs are displayed at Expo 67 - the Montreal World's Fair. If you introduce something that didn't happen, it has to be plausible, and since I know she's not real then that does seem implausible.

But I nitpick. I think that most people won't be bothered by this. And it is a good story – I loved reading about Mignonne's work in fashion, whether she was sewing or designing. Heck, the creative endeavors of any of the main cast were quite fun. There was definitely passion for the work, and that was always captivating – even when the physical and emotional relationships fizzled a bit.

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about Studio Saint-Ex, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: A Needle in the Right Hand of God by R. Howard Bloch
2011: Another little break for school...
2010: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
2009: Doodle of the Day: Twilight
2008: The Story of the Jews: A 4,000 Year Adventure by Stan Mack


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