Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Lace By Shirley Conran

(Click here for information on the 2016 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the July selection, Shirley Conran’s Lace.)


You may have noticed that this review is about two and a half weeks late. The reason is because that is how much longer than anticipated it took me to slog through Conran’s epic bestseller, a scandalous potboiler blown up to Clavellian (Michner-like? Ferberesque?) proportions, taking in Swiss boarding schools, secret teenage pregnancies, blackmail, S&M, purloined finacés, Arab sheiks, alcoholism, late-life lesbianism, a fashion heist, more blackmail, the Soviet occupation of Hungary, an illegal abortion, marital rape, the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, cocaine, frigidity, swinging London, science-fiction cancer research, porno-chic, dead parents, a daring escape involving acrobatics from behind the Iron Curtain, near-incest, actual incest, decapitation, and a cross-dressing husband.

And the amazing part is that Conran manages to make all of this so deadly boring.

It all starts out promisingly enough, as four high-powered women, the richest, the most famous, the top of their respective professions, are summoned to the Pierre hotel at the behest of international superstar Lili, an actress and sex symbol who is treated as the second coming of Greta Garbo (and comes off more like Blue Lagoon-era Brooke Shields), who delivers the immortal line to assembled group:

“All right,” she said, “which one of you bitches is my mother?”

Publicist Judy Jordan, champagne vintner and countess Maxine de Chazalle, war correspondent Kate Ryan, and socialite Pagan (real name: Jennifer) Trelawney then flash back to their Swiss boarding school days (and most of the rest of the last half of the 20th century, after a fashion).

The early chapters have a good eye for the details of the mega-rich, both aristocratic and nouveau riche (Pagan and Kate), continental (Maxine), plus American middle-class (Judy, who is part of a hospitality student exchange program for a nearby tearoom).

The book stalls out when it starts focusing on the teenagers introductions to love and sex with various young men. That the presumptive fathers are so dull is forgivable (this is, after all, a genre stuffed full of Lyon Burkes and Dexter Keyes), but the unpardonable offense is that the female characters become just as boring, and frankly I couldn’t keep track of which was Kate and which was Judy half the time.

After a break in the narrative, a year has passed and the girls, on the eve of graduation, speak in hushed tones about the incident, before setting off to the four corners of the globe, just in time to meet the Sexual Revolution head on.

And despite its salacious reputation, the sex scenes are weirdly prim (the exception being one that is illustrative of the Depraved Arts Of The Mysterious East, which involves a goldfish, which I could have lived my entire life without reading).

While the four friends find professional success and heartbreak, the story also picks up with the Child Who Would Be Lili, as she rises from refugee orphan to pin-up model to porno star to method actress and international superstar, having relations along the way with thinly-veiled versions of Terry Richardson’s father and Aristotle Onassis, plus her 15 year old maybe-brother.

Uhhhhhhhgh. After 600 pages does anybody even care about which of these bitches is her mother?

Sorry, Constant Reader, after all that I couldn’t bring myself to obtain and watch the 4-hour miniseries, despite the fact that the synopsis seems to indicate that it’s an improvement on the source material, with a more cohesive plot, and reducing the number of potential mothers down to a more manageable three.

Stray Thoughts and Observations:

As if possessed, her hands slipped down the back of his jeans, slid under the rough, tough fabric and over his silken, hard buttocks.

I promise that next week we will return to our regular schedule and content.

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14 Responses to Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Lace By Shirley Conran

  1. Moon says:

    Possessed hands!

  2. Disclaimer: I very much enjoy reading and posting to this blog, and I’d like to continue to do so. I hope what I’m about to post does not endanger that.

    I do not think this book is trash. I certainly don’t think it’s boring. I’m not taking about the subject matter; I mean the writing style. It’s crisp, to the point, no wasted words, descriptive and evocative. It’s several cuts above the Sex and Shopping subgenre. Yes, a lot of crazy things happen in it, but there’s logic to everything. I don’t think any characters acted in a melodramatic manner; I don’t think any event was presented in an overly dramatic way. I just don’t see anything, no matter how unusual or disturbing, as being in the story only for shock *value*. The action plays out with enough detail and logic and at a steady enough pace to make everything plausible. There’s a reason given for everything. Why people fall into bed, why and how they fall in love, why and how they become friends or enemies, how a business gets started and succeeds or fails. Do you think there’s *too* much logical explanation and that’s why you find it boring?

    It’s well-plotted, with distinct, well-drawn characters. The four girls are *not* the usual stereotypes of Princess, Rebel, Dreamer and Uptight One. They’re all distinct characters. And so is Lili. Step by step, we’re shown how her personality was formed. I’m surprised that you think the male characters are dull. What would it take to make them interesting to you? And there are some compelling scenes. Pierre skiing, for instance. That’s when I started to get hooked, on my first reading: I felt like I was going through each gate with him. The raid on the apartment to retrieve the stolen clothing. The helicopter crash, the escape from the soldiers (well, Lili’s escape, anyway), Kate in the Middle East. Again, not soapy. They’re presented in a way that would be perfectly acceptable in a novel by a male author, aimed at and about men. And I love Lili’s arc, going from “Don’t think we’re rich,” to “In case you wished to change or rest.”

    There’s a lot of practical talk, too. “One cannot be chic now and again. One either is or isn’t.” “A good husband is more important than a business. Now, I am not saying that a business is not important. I am only saying that a good husband is much, much *more* important.” (I see Maxine through different eyes now that I’ve been married 17 years.) I liked Judy telling Kate how to make a good impression on tour, instead of it being presented as “Kate went on tour and she wore this and this and this.” Usually, in S’nS novels, perfectly coordinated designer clothing magically appears in closets and suitcases as needed. And there’s a recurring theme of “Watch your money.” Usually, in S’n’S novels, money also magically appears when the characters need it. Here, it’s shown what it takes to acquire wealth, and how easy it is to lose it.

    Overall, I think this is a very substantive novel, well worth reading, that happens to have sex scenes. But the sex scenes can be skipped over. A friend of mine did just that, and was quite satisfied. It gets a bad rap because of the (definitely trashy) miniseries, and because it’s by a woman, about and aimed at women, and it has female characters enjoying sex. Which leads me to my next post…

  3. I’ve seen this pattern since I was a teenager. It’s okay for novels by and for and about men to have explicit sex. It’ll be shown from the man’s point of view, and the woman is also shown from the man’s POV. He may or may not care if she enjoys sex (with him); his satisfaction usually hinges on whether she gives him sex, and gives him whatever he wants outside the bedroom. But as long as the guy has lots of sex, explicitly shown or not, that proves he’s a Real Man.

    But novels with explicit sex that are by and for and about women? Trash, of course. And I can’t help thinking that it makes people, men and women both, uncomfortable to read about sex from a woman’s POV. Especially if she enjoys it. Which brings me back to Lace. That’s a constant struggle for many of the characters: how sexualized can a girl/woman be without risk of being discarded or dismissed as a “bad” girl?

    Meanwhile, the novels from the POVs of the men who make these decisions are Great American Literature. Catch-22 has American soldiers in Italy during WWII using women like kleenex. But it’s literature, and Lace is trash. Portnoy’s Complaint is about basically a sex addict, who condescends to his SO because she’s uneducated, but more importantly because she’s sexually open, which lowers her value to him. But it’s literature, and Fear of Flying, about a woman who can’t seem to stop getting used by men, is trash. Rabbit, Run is about a guy who has zero respect for women unless they can have his baby. But it’s literature, and The Cheerleader by Ruth Doan MacDougall is…well, fluff, not trash. But certainly not literature.

    And you’ve never heard of The Cheerleader OR Ruth Doan MacDougall, right? Of course not. Because the most she can hope for is being a niche author, on account of being a woman writing for and about girls and women. If McDougall was a man, and wrote (in the same style) a novel called The Quarterback, about a young man’s coming of age in the 1950s, it would be a shining star in the Getting Laid In The ‘50s subgenre. But a novel about a cheerleader gets dismissed as “shallow fluff” or “escapism”.

    I don’t mind the term “chick lit” per se. But I deeply resent the mindset that if a novel has female characters who enjoy their own sexuality, who are not just plot devices for men to fight over or procreate with, that those characters are trashy and that the book itself is trash. OTOH, I haven’t read absolutely everything. Perhaps there *are* novels that contain sexually empowered women that are not seen as trash?

    • Bobbi Flekman says:

      I’ve never heard Fear of Flying called “trash” or on the same level with supermarket paperback bodice-rippers.

      You seem to be loading a lot of heavy issues that may be internal rather than external onto a fun lighthearted website. Perhaps you should send this screed to Jezebel.

      • mondomolly says:

        First and foremost, I want to say how much I appreciate every single comment posted here! Seriously, when someone takes the time to post “LOL” on an entry, that person is my favorite person on earth for the rest of the day 😉

        Also, I absolutely encourage both dissenting opinions and lively debate on this site (as long as we keep it civil, of course!) as well as anybody who feels like digging deeper and sharing more academic/cultural/sociological thoughts on the books reviewed- as long as there isn’t an expectation that I can always sustain that level of commentary. I’m the first to admit that sometimes a strangled grunt is the only reaction I came come up with to certain titles.

        And I definitely agree that often when men write about sex it’s treated as art, and when women do it its dismissed as trash- the examples you list are great ones. Off the top of my head, I think Valley of the Dolls, The Best of Everything and The Group do a great job of giving women complex motivations (both internal and external) and still get dismissed as Chick Lit.

        That being said, Lace still didn’t do it for me. I did find the characters boring, the political intrigue tacked-on and the depiction of Prince/King Abdullah racist.

        I *did* really like the fact that the four women’s drive to fulfill themselves through their careers was treated as both normal and admirable (a little less so with Lili, who seems to just keep bumbling into lucky situations, IMO), and that for the most part it doesn’t impede their relationship with men, or portray them as “too masculine” or unattractive.

        So! Thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts (and also CLEARLY I need to read The Cheerleader!) I especially appreciate it because these posts tend to not be as popular as the YA posts so it is great to get some discussion going! 🙂

        • mondomolly: Well, I’m glad you approve my posts! And if you don’t like Lace, you don’t have to. I just felt compelled to speak up.

          I haven’t read The Best of Everything, but I have read the other two you mention. Valley of the Dolls was also not junk, but I found it discouraging. Anne thinks that sex is “the ultimate in fulfillment: to please a man you loved.” Really?! Jennifer literally can’t live without the man she loves, and Neely is condemned for working instead of being with her kids, even though that inclination is praised in men. The Group I found to be just strange. Every chapter was like a standalone story, almost no connection between the characters, and the one character who seems interesting is seen only through others’ eyes, and rarely even that.

          As far as The Cheerleader, I found it when I was looking for another book: The Cheer Leader by Jill MacCorkle. Now, that’s a whole other banana. Joslyn, in MacCorkle’s book, is a cheerleader only incidentally. We never see her cheer, or try out for the squad; we’re told that she’s “chief” cheerleader (must be a southern thing) apparently only to add to the irony when she has a nervous breakdown. Because how could the beautiful, popular cheerleader have a problem that can’t be solved by a manicure, amirite?

          MacCorkle’s Cheer Leader is also a nostalgia piece, although Jo is a of a different generation. Born in 1957, teenager in the early-to-mid 1970s. That’s a generation that doesn’t get examined much even today (can you believe I’d never heard of Bobby Sherman before I read this?), but the author brought it to life for me. And once I had a total meet-cute, where I met a guy in a bookstore, and we brought our conversation to a diner. I’d just bought my copy of MacCorkle’s book (still have it!) and I explained it to him pretty thoroughly: it was not about cheerleading, it was about a girl having a nervous breakdown, and so forth. I described the scene in which Jo reflects that in 1974, people are supposed to Do Their Own Thing, and what if her Own Thing is to put on a tweed suit, alligator pumps and handbag, red lipstick and s close to a beehive hairdo as she can manage with early-70s hair, and walk down to the drugstore? So she does, and everyone stares at her like she’s an alien. Point proven: Your Own Thing still has to be pretty close to everyone else’s Own Thing. Then we talked about other stuff. And as we were gathering out stuff to leave, he looked at the book in my hand and said “Well I still think The Cheer Leader has got to be a shallow…” I forget exactly how he worded it, but I could have smacked him. “Didn’t you hear me when I said she has a nervous breakdown?” I guess it was supposed to be a cute, fluffy, shallow nervous breakdown.

          Anyway, yes, read The Cheerleader. Read The Cheer Leader too if you like, but be advised that it’s kind of rough. Definitely check out anything by MacDougall, though!

    • Jen says:

      I love Ruth Doan MacDougall’s The Cheerleader, as well as the sequels that follow the protagonist through to late middle-age. I reread them every other year or so, and always find something new to appreciate, perhaps because as I age I can appreciate facets of the book I didn’t catch while reading with more youthful eyes.

      I stumbled onto her work years ago when the library I worked at did an immense weeding of the collection. The Cheerleader had never been checked out, and feeling sorry for it, I bought it for a quarter and took it home. Best gumball money I ever spent, and I quickly added the rest to my shelf. It’s a shame she isn’t better known.

      Bobbi, you may want to check out the reviews of Fear of Flying. They run the gamut, and yes, several posters put the book solidly in the “trash” category. I haven’t read the book, but found the differing views interesting.

      I love to read Molly’s take on the books she discusses, and I enjoyed reading Sandra’s thoughtful comments as well. I feel her viewpoint added an interesting slant to the discussion.

    • Cee says:

      Posting here a year later to thank you for this detailed and thoughtful analysis, especially the very astute comparisons to what is considered Great American Literature.

  4. Jen: No way! Have you read *all* the books about the Gang, including The Husband Bench and A Born Maniac? How sad that The Cheerleader had *never* been checked out, but how fortunate for you that you gave it a chance!

    Re: Goodreads: I read one- and two-star reviews of a book first. People who don’t like a book are more likely to go into detail about why, and what doesn’t work, whereas five-star reviews can often be simple gushing with no insight. I checked the reviews of Lace shortly before I replied to this, and it was aggravating to see how many of the five-star reviews said “Delightfully trashy!” After posting here, though, I went back and checked the three-and four-star reviews, and they were more inclined to say “Don’t be fooled; this is not trash.” Guess I should rethink that policy! (Somewhat, anyway; I have learned a thing or two from one-star reviews.)

    • Jen says:

      Hi Sandra–I have read the entire series, and have found each book has its own richness. I believe she is working on a new book about Snowy, but I don’t know when it might be published. The characters are aging though, and I hope she doesn’t kill anyone off! I often get an ear infection in December, and this series is what I reach for along with the ibuprofen. It draws me in every time, soothes me, and I feel I’m visiting people I love and know well. I was so glad to see you comment on it!

      With books, as well as with many things in life, I believe that one person’s “trash” may be another person’s treasure. Some books are pure escapism for me, and they may be considered “fluff”, but oh, how I love them. Sometimes a “delightfully trashy” book is just what the day calls for, but I always have disliked labeling books in that way. Jane Austen’s works were considered fluffy at one time, but now her writings are studied in literature courses. It doesn’t seem fair that men seem to arrive at this pinnacle earlier and easier than women, and I don’t want to paint every situation with the same brush, but it really is glaring how respect is more easily given, and not always earned, for males. I guess we are just lucky that women can actually put their names on their works now rather than hiding behind pseudonyms. Of course, people still can hide their true identities, but you get my point.

      Back to trash–there should be no shame attached to reading certain genres, and my Judith Krantz books are sitting on a shelf next to D.E. Stevenson, Rumer Godden and Betty Smith. Love them all!

      Thank you for allowing us this discussion, Molly. Your blog is definitely one of my happy places!

      Off topic, and definitely not a YA book, but if you read and enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, you may want to consider reading Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. I think she is another author who has gotten short shrift.
      I asked my husband to read it because I needed to talk about it since it left quite an impression on me. He is such a good egg.

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