Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me

Patricia Volk, Author
Patricia Volk. Knopf, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-307-96210-2
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Volk (Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family) has a talent for unearthing meaning in the seemingly mundane. She works off the theory that everyone reads one influential book before puberty that leaves an indelible mark. Hers was outré fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s memoir, Shocking Life, filched from a shelf before her voracious reader of a mother (who wore Schiaparelli perfume) could return it to the Upper West Side bookstore where she “rented” books. Volk also describes studying her own mother (deemed beautiful by everyone from the dentist to the hostess at Schrafft’s) as if she were a text: watching her put on her makeup and dispense aphorisms (“Never let a man see you with cold cream on your face”); observing as she falls out and reunites with her four best friends; and then witnessing her mother’s decline later in life (“Either she’s getting shorter or I’m getting taller”). This is no soft-focus hagiography, however. Volk is cheerfully honest about her mother’s concern with what others think of her and her cruelty to her own mother, and she bluntly calls Schiaparelli “a terrible mother.” When Volk returns to Schiaparelli’s memoir 57 years after her first read, she realizes that her 10-year-old self completely missed the woman’s “profound melancholia” and suicidal tendencies. Including both personal photographs and depictions of Schiaparelli inventions, such as women’s underpants that didn’t require ironing, this memoir is a compelling tribute to two ambitious women who were way ahead of their time. Agent: Gloria Loomis, Watkins/Loomis Agency. (Apr.)
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