Fatal in my Fashion (1955) by Patricia McGerr

It might be a wet February day in Paris, but nothing is going to dampen the spirits of those going to attend St Pierre’s fashion show. Expectations are running high, wondering what will be the next big thing, and a lot of this circles around St Pierre himself, who has a larger than life personality. The finale of his show is known as Pierrescence and everybody is desperate to know what this is. Yet this finale draws shock and surprise for a much deadlier reason, namely the discovery that under the cover of darkness during this period, Emily Stone has been murdered. Emily is not a model, in fact she is an attendant to and sister of Sarah-Anne, who is St Pierre’s most important mannequin. Yet she is no pushover and it is hard to find somebody Emily didn’t quarrel with. In particular she was forever making excessive demands of St Pierre, threatening to withdraw Sarah-Anne, if not appeased and she had no scruples when it came to making money and looking after her own interests.

In keeping with her other novels, McGerr reveals how self-sacrifice can be highly controlling and manipulative and the majority of this novel is an extended flashback, looking at the previous three years leading up to the show. Emily in some ways is a toxic fairy godmother. She is determined to give Sarah-Anne the best, yet her dream of this is not one Sarah-Anne shares, but in turn Sarah-Anne has no power to resist Emily’s demands. As Sarah-Anne rises to fame we see how she becomes a pawn in the game Emily and St Pierre play with each other, with Sarah-Anne suffering regardless of who wins each battle.

On reflection this is a remarkably sad book, which peels back the layers on the characters to reveal those who subject and those who are subjected to and I think it is reasonable to say Sarah-Anne suffers physical and emotional abuse. Though in fairness to the times and style of the book, this is not graphically belaboured. Our viewpoint on this matter is more influenced by Sarah-Anne, who interestingly despises door-mat behaviour in others, yet seems unable to avoid doing it herself. Objectively I can see how the ending of the book is meant to surprise the reader, but it didn’t feel like sufficient a payoff, especially since the ultimate ending is rather ambiguous. In fact, I would add that the ending is a combination of depressing and creepy.

The main issue I had with this book though, is that the flashback is too long. It consumes 90% of the narrative and doesn’t really give the reader much in exchange for their attention. I certainly wouldn’t categorise this book as a mystery. I would struggle to even call it a crime novel. It has a crime in it, but the crime holds little importance in and of itself. It is merely the consequence of the events that precede it and these events, in retrospect, didn’t feel worth the read. I kept reading, hoping something would happen, but ultimately, I came away feeling a bit deflated. I was surprised by this as I loved my last read by McGerr, which I read in August and earlier this year I also tried two of her more experimental novels. So, to come to a book which is neither experimental, yet not satisfactorily conventional was a bit disappointing.

Rating: 3.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): During a Performance of Any Sort

4 comments

  1. This sounds not dissimilar in theme to Death in a Million Living Rooms, a.k.a. Die Laughing, which I read earlier this year — the controlling influence behind the scenes who steps on a lot of toes, puts a lot of backs up, and ends up dead as a result. I’m still keen to try more McGerr, since I really enjoyed DiaMLR, but I’ll put this after The Seven Deadly Sisters or Pick Your Victim, methinks.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Huh, how about that. I wonder if she was particularly taken with a handful of central themes and just sought to explore those as fully as possible. DiaMLR is a great study of power dynamics, obligation, and trying to figure out how co-dependent a series of close-knit relationships are, and this sounds like it could be the same. And she did it so well in that book, you could understand her wanting to come at it from another angle, or in a different setting…

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