STUDIO SAINT-EX by Ania Szado (Viking), 354 pages, $30 cloth. Szado appears at an authors’ brunch with Carolyn Abraham and Jacqueline Winspear on Sunday (April 21, see Readings, this page) and at the Harbourfront Reading Series with Mia Couto and Shyam Selvadurai on May 1. See listings. Rating: NNN
Ania Szado has a thing for sewing. Her protagonist in her excellent debut novel, Beginning Of Was, is expert with a needle and thread, and her way more ambitious follow-up, Studio Saint-Ex, features Mignonne, an aspiring fashion designer who can make a dress out of mere fragments of silk.
Szado describes this craft in loving detail, one of the major strengths of this story of French expats in Manhattan during the Second World War. Mignonne has gone to work for a ruthless couturier bent on stealing her designs, and while trying to attract Consuelo, the fiery wife of writer, pilot and French patriot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, as a client, falls in love with the famous author.
Saint-Exupéry, called Tonio by his wife, is a rich character, loyal to his wife while stringing Mignonne along, and wholly committed to his work. Mignonne, young and hungry - in more ways than one - is also appealing, talented and wilful but still young enough to throw the odd tantrum. Szado's exploration of what it takes to bring art - whether it's de Saint-Exupéry's fiction, specifically The Little Prince, or her fashion - into the world is insightful, even inspiring at times.
The story sinks into sudsy mode when it comes to the love triangle. The manipulative Consuelo will seduce anything with a pulse in order to keep Tonio in line and is determined to mount a risky performance-cum-fashion-show version of The Little Prince to hold his heart. All that keeps the pages turning.
But I miss the edgy and less likeable characters in Beginning Of Was. And as a piece of period fiction, Studio Saint-Ex gets sloppy. I'm sure that in 1942 no one used the word that Szado does when Mignonne comments that Antoine is "obsessing" about returning to France.
Still, this is one entertaining book.