Fashionably Late, Olivia Goldsmith

Harper Collins, 1994, 431 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-017611-3

If the fashion industry mystifies, amuses, annoys or interests you, Fashionably Late ought to prove a delicious reading experience. Pop-fun author Olivia Goldsmith has trashed the acting and publishing professions elsewhere (in Flavour of the Month and The Bestseller, respectively)… but this time she’s got another field to explore, and she proves remarkably adept at presenting both the glory and the misery of haute couture in this novel.

It all revolves around Karen Kahn, fashion designer and owner of her own prestigious label. At first glance, she’s got everything one would want: Money, fame, love and the admiration of her peers. But even as she’s awarded an important industry prize, a doomed man appears (in classic tragic fashion) to warn her that fame is feeling and it can end very, very quickly. As the novel progresses, there are plenty of opportunities for Karen’s world to crumble: her family is packed with dysfunctional relatives, her husband is prone to bouts of moodiness and her business is being courted by a rich buyer. As if that wasn’t enough, Karen is also contemplating her own lineage; though she knows she’s an adopted child, her own biological clock has rung out: Adoption is the only possibility if she wants to raise a child.

Melodramatic stuff, but that’s half the fun of it. Goldsmith can write big fat pop novels like none other, and her professionalism shines throughout the book. The fashion industry is a big and complex beast, and one of Goldsmith’s most successful talent is to manage to slowly reveal it all, from sewing to modelling, in compelling and unobtrusive scenes. Exposition is well-handled , and doesn’t take much to be fascinated by the convincing background details. In many ways, this feels like one of Arthur Hailey’s docu-fictive novels, except that Goldsmith can juggle both plot and documentary with an ease that leaves good old Arthur coughing in the dust.

A large part of this superiority depends on her strong sense of characterization. While Goldsmith can’t be accused of too much ambiguity, she knows exactly what is needed for the type of novel she’s writing. Here, it’s interesting to see the distribution of quirks. While Fashionably Late features several viewpoint characters, it spends most of its time inside Karen’s head. Fittingly enough, the lead protagonist is emotionally bland while her entourage is stuffed with showy supporting characters. This allows the reader to project emotions on the protagonist and be impressed by the actions of others. Good stuff!

While I’m working from an incomplete database (three novels out of nearly a dozen), Goldsmith’s moral storytelling seems ironclad so far. Heroes win; villains are punished. While Fashionably Late isn’t as decisively punitive as, say, Flavour of the Month, it certainly rewards the good guys and promises pain and punishment for the evil ones. The suspense in Goldsmith’s novels isn’t in seeing who wins, but in seeing them err on either good and evil before settling on one alignment and suffering the consequences. Manipulative and populist, maybe, but also decidedly comfortable; reading an Olivia Goldsmith is guaranteed to be a satisfactory, uncomplicated experience.

Satisfactory and amusing, naturally. The prose style is deliciously clear and compelling; while it may take a while to absorb all the characters and the multiple plot threads the novel acquires quite a narrative momentum that does a lot to propel the book forward. Don’t be surprised to read more and more of the book as it advances. The little twists thrown at the end are a bit over-the-top, but that too had become somewhat of a Goldsmith griffe. It’s not as if half of the so-called “twists” can be seen well in advance. (Oh, gee, I wonder what will happen to the baby…?)

As Fashionably Late concludes, it also moves both the protagonist and the reader toward a more balanced view of the fashion industry, after showing both the glamour and the misery, the admiration and the contempt engendered by it. Few will fail to be impressed to see where Karen end up, though some may step back and tut-tut the warm and fuzzy feeling of the conclusion. To those I say shoo, because they obviously haven’t understood the rules of Goldsmith’s universe. It may not be the real world, but it works for me, in a certain fashion.

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