The Collection by Gioia Diliberto
Fiction (Historical); 275 pgs
Reason for Reading: One advantage to reviewing books for a publisher like Simon and Schuster is that I do not always know what books I may be getting in the mail next. There have been a couple of books that I glanced at and knew would not hold my interest and others that I could not wait to dive into. This particular one is not one I would have picked up on my own, but when I found it in my mailbox, it sounded interesting enough to try.
Comments: Gioia Diliberto's The Collection takes readers into the world of Parisian high fashion in the early 1900's. The competition was fierce and the working conditions exhausting. Weaving history with fiction, the author has written an entertaining novel that offers a glimpse behind the scenes of the glamour and beauty of the fashion industry.
Learning to sew at her grandmother's hand saved Isabelle Varlet from a bout of consumption that nearly cost Isabelle her life. Raised by her grandmother and three aunts in a small French town, the young Isabelle dreams of Paris and being a couturier. When she is old enough, she is sent to Agen to be the apprentice of Madame Duval, a dressmaker who had once worked with the famous Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, a woman whose talent and skill Isabelle comes to admire just as ferociously as her mentor once did.
When a childhood friend returns to Agen to run the family patisserie, Isabelle and Jacques are drawn to one another much to Madame Duval's chagrin. Isabelle and Jacques, however, could not be happier. A war, a terrible accident, and an influenza epidemic bring unexpected tragedy to the small French town. With encouragement and a letter of reference from Madame Duval, Isabelle sets out for Paris, seeking work at the House of Chanel.
Her own talent earns her a place with Mademoiselle Chanel, but the working conditions are difficult and the competition is brutal. Isabelle must find a way to shine if she is to succeed and yet to shine too brightly would not put her in favor with Mademoiselle.
The Collection is full of colorful characters, both real and imagined. The great designers of the era, Patou, Chanel and Vionnet all make an appearance. Mademoiselle Chanel is demanding and extremely critical of those around her. Her arrogance is matched by Monsieur Patou with whom she shares a mutual professional hatred. And yet there is a generous side to Mademoiselle, one that is rarely experienced, and one she prefers to keep secret. The fictional Fabrice, a designer on his way out, holds so tightly to hope that he will one day be among the greats again. Despite his flaws, it is hard not to feel sorry for him.
Isabelle is a charming and talented seamstress. She is extremely likeable, but at times seems too good to be true. The characters of Jacques and Daniel seemed such promising characters and yet the reader is left without the opportunity to really get to know either one of them. The dresses and fashions were described at great length and brought to life by the author's descriptions, however, the characters themselves remained somewhat superficial.
While the characterization may have left something to be desired, the story itself was intriguing. The author captured the tension and fever of the times. The threats of copyists, sabotage and thievery were very real both in the novel and in real life during that period of time. The Collection was enjoyable and the historical aspect interesting. I was offered a look into a world I otherwise might never have known.
Favorite Part: I loved the story of 10-year-old Isabelle making the shirt for Daniel and having nine-year-old Jacques wear it to church in order to try and get it to Daniel without it being so obvious.
Miscellaneous: Just a quick reminder that I will be holding a drawing for two duplicate books I discovered in my TBR collection on the 5th of this month. There is still time to submit your entry.