Anchor, 2003 (2006 movie tie-in mass-market re-issue), 432 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-307-27555-8
By now, nearly everyone even remotely interested in this kind of story has seen the 2006 movie adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, featuring an icy Meryl Streep as the implacable editor Miranda Priestly and Anne Hathaway as her much-abused assistant. This may actually work to the novel’s benefit, given how newer readers will have no trouble imagining Streep’s iceberg-blonde terror enunciating each one of her zingers. (Speaking as a guy, there are also worse things than picturing Anne Hathaway as the narrator of a 400+ page book.)
But The Devil Wears Prada was a book well before it was a film, and going back to the source provides, as usual, a deeper and more immersive experience.
The bare bones of the story remain the same: In New York, a studious young woman looking for a writer’s job is almost accidentally hired as a personal assistant for the editor-in-chief of the top fashion magazine on the planet. She knows the job will be hell, but reasons that she’ll be able to name her reward after a year on the job. But little does she suspect that the job will change her more quickly than she expects…
Basically a boss-from-hell story, The Devil Wears Prada clearly suggests real-life kinship with Vogue magazine, and much effort has been spent elsewhere explaining the similarities between Priestley and Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anne Wintour. That kind of what-real-what-isn’t inner-baseball, however, will be better left to true enthusiasts of the New York fashion scene: For the rest of us, it’s a look at an alien culture that can spend as much time worrying about fashion accessories as others worry about their mortgage. Meanwhile, our narrator is stuck answering to every whim of her boss, no matter how insufficiently detailed they may be.
There’s some irony in that even though The Devil Wears Prada can be classified under the fluffy chick-lit banner (featuring a romantic plot involving a young woman deluged under the more superficial aspects of contemporary life), it quickly finds itself a spot alongside The Nanny Diaries as an indictment of the New York upper set. Although focused on fashion, the story does feature a modest amount of class-warfare goodness in showing how the rich are not necessarily any saner than the rest of us.
Fans of adaptations mechanics will find much to like in comparing both versions of the story: The novel, of course, has the advantage of detail as our narrator explains the inner working of a modern fashion magazine, and the political wars in-between the covers. On the other hand, the movie cleverly balances the impact of both lead characters and provides both depth and sympathy to the boss-from-hell: Two of the film’s best scenes show the consequences of Priestley’s behaviour and how she recognizes herself in the young protagonist of the story. Those may be obvious screenwriting-101 fixes, but those details add a lot to the overall dynamics between the characters and tone done the petulance of the book’s narration. The film is perhaps a bit better at showing how close to the dark side our protagonists finds herself after a few months on the job, which makes things a bit more interesting than the boiling-kettle drama in reading the book and wondering when Miss-perfect narrator will finally crack under the pressure. (When she does, however, it’s a thing of beauty.)
Given the singular nature of the New York publishing scene and the even stranger character of the fashion scene, it’s a relief to find out that the prose style of the novel is accessible and even compelling. The episodic nature of our narrator’s plight is a series of one absurd incident after another, and it’s not such a big issue if the plot emerges only late in the story. Some of the dramatic arc is contrived and depends on a narrator who’s essentially oblivious to what’s going on around her, but it’s fair to point out that the novel is less about the plot than an accumulation of wacky incidents in the world of fashion.
For an escapist novel aimed at wannabe fashionistas, it’s a minor amazement that The Devil Wears Prada keeps having an impact even six years after its release. Not only did the film do good business (and led Streep to yet another Oscar nomination), but it’s an open question whether the upcoming documentary The September Issue, which features Vogue and Anne Wintor front-and-center, would have existed in its current form without the increased attention given to Wintour after The Devil Wears Prada. Not bad for “just a chick-lit novel”…