5.20.2013

Review: Studio Saint-Ex, by Ania Szado

Studio Saint-Ex
by Ania Szado
Knopf
368 pp  |  June 4, 2013
Mignonne Lachapelle has returned to New York City after a year home in Montreal with her mother. She arrives in the wake of a rather bleak discovery: one of her senior-year professors at her fashion school has stolen her designs for a magnificent butterfly-inspired collection, and is pandering it as her own.

Returning to confront Madam Fiche, the plagiarist, she is unexpectedly hired by her as an assistant for her Atellier* Fiche, a job that Mignonne only accepts as a last resort after a number of other fashion houses turn her down for any kind of design position.

It is a meeting of desperations - Mignonne's for a career, and Madam Fiche's for help; and when these women begin to collaborate, it is clear who will be the true beneficiary of their work.

But a forced and difficult collaboration with Madam Fiche is not the only issue at hand in Studio Saint-Ex; Mignonne is also confronted by the arrival of her former lover--a married man, a member of the French Air Force, and a French aristocrat. His friends call him "Saint-Ex," Mignonne calls him Antoine, and his wife Consuelo calls him Tonio. But readers will know him as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the beloved author of The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince, 1943). 

Driven by the combined forces of ambition and desire, Szado's fictionalized history is an excursion into the creation of The Little Prince as well as an examination of the fashion world of the 1940s. At first, I believed it was simply the latter. The infamous author's name didn't manage to ring any bells in my head. It wasn't until Antoine begins telling Mignonne the story of the boy he's been sketching on napkins for months that I caught on. But it didn't matter, because Szado's story is beautifully told, even if it hadn't been rooted in historical fact. The seduction and the romance are all real, and beautifully intertwined with the drama from the pressure of the fashion and literary industries. 

Mignonne exists in a constant state of tug-o-war between her two loves, and the reader will likely find it difficult to root for either one over the other. Eventually, this conflict leads to what could be a mutually beneficial collaboration with Antoine's wife, Consuela, whose serpentine sensibility threatens to tear the entire fabric of Mignonne's reality to shreds.

This is a very quick read, rife with the kind of imagery that can suck you into a story and never let go. And lovers of The Little Prince will, I'm sure, be enamored by this fictionalized account of the great author, his tempestuous wife, and the love that could have been.

*Atellier, meaning "studio" or "workshop" in French.

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