Garish Days by Lynn Caraganis (Weidenfeld & Nicholson: $15.95; 214 pages)
The year is 1938, the narrator 19-year-old Louise Merrill, the setting a ship bound for Cherbourg, the style pure meringue. "Garish Days" is the sort of book no one writes anymore; a novel to be read on a chaise longue with a box of bonbons at hand or perhaps wrapped in a Cunard blanket of your own, whiling away the time between morning bouillon and lunch.
The story is presented in the form of a memoir as the elderly heroine looks back at a madcap, enchanted week in Paris as the buyer for a Cleveland department store. The Paris she remembers has all but vanished, existing now only in the windows of highly commercial art galleries, where the Arc de Triomphe shows up faintly in a blue-gray mist and the foreground of the picture is dotted with tiny people holding umbrellas as they rush to the Ritz Bar for an aperitif.
Because Caraganis writes tartly entertaining pieces for the Atlantic and the New Yorker, the reader may expect some lemon under the sugary fluff, but if "Garish Days" is meant as satire, the subject has escaped unscathed. In fact, a subject is hard to find.
Like the Arc, the theme is engulfed in a romantic haze. Could Caraganis be writing a gentle spoof of the fashion industry? Louise not only adores clothes but loves describing them. One of the rival store buyers is given some piranha-like traits, but one snoop hardly makes a satire. With the exception of Louise's staid and elderly cabin mate and a few other superannuated types taking up space in deck chairs, the passengers on the Berengaria are all as young and giddy as Louise herself. She has so much fun with them--drinking gin fizzes, chain smoking, flirting and giggling hysterically--that a send-up seems the furthest thing from her mind. Besides, it's almost impossible to tell this bunch of merrymakers apart, because they all use the same quaint slang and stay slightly plastered all day; talking in non sequiturs and deciding what to wear that night.
Someone named Jean is slightly pregnant and there's an aloof girl in "a bulgy knit suit" the rest call "The Bolshie" and ignore, but aside from these small distinctions, the characters seem interchangeable; the narrator equally fond of them all. If the Berengaria is meant as a ship of fools, Louise seems blissfully unaware of the fact. Satire has to be judgmental--if not harshly, at least subtly--and while Louise seems to recognize the silliness of her companions, she's delighted to be part of the general foolishness.
Once in Paris, Louise embarks on her assignments at the couture houses. She's there to buy the French designs that will be reproduced at home for the store's more elegant customers--not the ones who buy "mottled leather shoes with false buttons hiding elastic panels," but the others, the ones who can appreciate a Chanel dress "with the kind of waist no imitator could achieve, and if you wore a corset, you would look like a tree trunk."
Evolves Into Love Story
Today, with original samples costing double digit thousands, no 19-year-old would be given such autonomy, but half a century ago, the risks were proportionate to the prices. Though this section begins with antiquated fashion notes on necklines, peplums and flounces, it quickly evolves into a love story when Louise meets the handsome scion of a great French fabric house at her very first showing. He's Charles de Gainsbourg, and he falls for Louise like a metric ton of cobblestones. Her duties at the fashion shows interfere only slightly with their romance, which proceeds only as far and fast as the customs of the era and the shortness of time permit.
Though Louise wires her Aunt Hattie (a senior employee of the Columbus, Ohio, store and quite possibly the owner's mistress) for permission to stay on in Paris, she's firmly instructed to return on schedule, as planned. She reluctantly complies, hiding her tears in Charles' collar as she kisses him goodby at the boat train, never to see him again. In the short time allotted to them, they've walked along the quai, eaten biftec and pommes frites, kissed, and fantasized a future that will never be.
"I'm not going to pretend that hordes of my contemporaries urged me to write this memoir," the narrator says at the beginning of the novel, but all signs indicate Caraganis plunged ahead anyway, quite possibly inspired by dear Aunt Hattie's diary found tucked into the folds of a 1938 Chanel suit; the gold braid on the jacket tarnished, the wool boucle still faintly scented with No. 5. Overcome with nostalgia and an understandable desire to escape, if only temporarily, from the horrendous changes wrought by the last five decades, she could have dashed off "Garish Days" during the blue hour, when everyone in Paris feels sad and sentimental because "the sky is still light but the street lights are on."