Wednesday 7 December 2016

Books: In Vogue - fashion editor's birds' eye view for detail

The Parrots, Alexandra Shulman, Penguin/Fig Tree, €11.99

Published 10/08/2015 | 02:30

Alexandra Shulman
Alexandra Shulman

Alexandra Shulman's first novel, Can We Still Be Friends, followed the lives of three London-based pals as they left university in the 1980s. All three were, to some extent, defined by the careers they forged. Katherine Tennison, the protagonist of her second novel, The Parrots, couldn't be more different. London-based, but there the similarities end, Katherine is a 40-something mother of one, facing empty-nest syndrome. Her work as a calligrapher more hobby than career, her home studio an ode to organisation rather than artistic endeavour.

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Shulman herself of course, is all career. The longest serving editor of British Vogue, she recalls her son as a young child exclaiming "I hate that magazine". She does not fit the popular perception of a Vogue editor. Unlike her American counterpart, Anna Wintour, who presents a terrifyingly polished front, Shulman has spoken openly about her struggles with writing; she finds plot and dialogue difficult she says, pondered over whether her mother (the writer Drusilla Beyfus; father was the film critic Milton Shulman) liked her first book (she thought not) and has spoken of the panic attacks she used to suffer - revealing she takes Xanax with her everywhere "like my lucky charm". She is well-dressed in a relaxed sort of way, and doesn't seem like someone who agonises obsessively over her diet.

Like Shulman herself, her books, whilst full of Vogueish observations - the thin women ate with chopsticks, she observes in The Parrots, and later wonders where does mink stand in the canon of bad furs - are not of the fashion world that she inhabits on a daily basis.

In The Parrots, we enter Katherine's seemingly perfectly ordered life at a turning point. Outwardly, she has it all. The beautifully appointed stuccoed house. The successful, wealthy husband; an art gallery owner to whom she was first attracted as much for his family's status as for his physicality and sense of humour.

The adored only son, just starting college. The Tennison's marriage is a mutually satisfying arrangement - she smoothed out his rough edges, he enjoys her creating their perfect life, if only for party guests to admire. They are "a couple at the centre of things".

Below this polished surface however, things have calcified. The stress of trying, and failing, to conceive a second child has taken any spontaneity out of what was already a rather bloodless affair. Katherine counts the freckles on her husband's shoulder during sex. We soon learn that Rick is embroiled in an extra-marital affair. Into this ordered existence arrive the Fullardi siblings, Matteo and Antonella, the Italian son and daughter of an old school friend of Katherine's. Their arrival, which is heralded rather heavy-handedly by the appearance of actual parrots - "exotic vermin" - in the Tennison's garden, gradually throws their world into disarray. From the outset, the siblings are described in unsettling terms; a febrile, etoliated presence.

Identifying more as a journalist than a fashion editor, Shulman has an excellent eye for detail, and is skilled at vividly creating her character's world's with a few keen observations.

As the book goes on though, it is something of case of style over substance - the Fullardis never really seem to deserve the impact they are deemed to have; she is merely an annoying spoilt brat, his superior pose, whilst initially suggesting shades of Dangerous Liasons' Vicomte de Valmont, never really gets beyond the two dimensional.

Shulman wrote both books in her spare time. Every Saturday, she revealed, she would write for four hours, then take a break and panic, telling her partner she couldn't go on. It's just this sort of earthy humanity that is missing from the main characters in her book.

Apart from Katherine's best friend Flo, whose purpose in the story is questionable; these are rather shallow, careless people.

Plot development is handled more confidently here than in her first novel, but as it gets more involved, the narrative risks being unengaging at times. Shulman's descriptive skills, and gentle satirical touch, for the most part, overcome this.

As we increasingly care less about the travails of Rick and Katherine and the implosion of their rather self - satisfied marriage, the well rounded cast of friends and relatives - Katherine's waspishly snobbish mother-in-law, Rick's flamboyant mistress the Russian Olga and her oligarch husband, their maturing teenage son, provide a somewhat needed point of interest.

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