The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar 2014, Day Eight

December 9th, 2014 | Filed under Books, Reading, The Book Maven's Literary Advent Calendar

Today is a kind of Literary Advent Calendar twofer, since one book I loved reminded me of another. On a few of ┬áthe “Best of 2014” lists is We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel by Matthew Thomas, a quietly devastating account of a mid-20th-century Irish-American family’s journey with Alzheimer’s Disease. I cannot recommend it to you strongly enough; it’s a book that lives up to the hype of phrases such as “It’s destined to be a classic.” It truly is destined to be a classic, because Thomas’s clear, strong prose is married to a deep compassion for human frailty along with an artist’s eye for the essential.

We Are Not Ourselves also happens to be a portrait of America as immigrant nation, by which I mean that Thomas recognizes the striving behind the life that Eileen Tumulty and Ed Leary create after they meet and marry in the early 1960s. a yearning for the best of the American dream that Thomas juxtaposes starkly with the sluggish pull of early-onset dementia.

That great and terrible American drive reminded me a novel I reviewed earlier this year for Washingtonian magazine.

“The Pink Suit: A Novel” by Nicole Mary Kelby

The Pink Suit- A NovelTwo couples stand side by side at the heart of Kelby’s jewelbox of a novel about the iconic bloodstained Chanel skirt and jacket that represent one of our country’s saddest national moments, the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr. in 1963. The two couples are President and Mrs. Kennedy, of course–but less obviously are Kelby’s creations, Kate and Patrick. Kate is the seamstress at the historical Chez Ninon, a New York studio that specialized in knocking off the work of Parisian couturiers, often with their cooperation. With her nerves of steel and steady hands, essential when working with pricey fabrics, Kate is given the task of fashioning the closest thing to a real Chanel suit that Jackie Kennedy will ever have, since the era would not sanction a First Lady wearing clothes not Made in America.

As Kate works on The Suit, she slowly begins a courtship with Patrick, who is both her local butcher and one of her oldest friends in the then mostly Irish enclave of Inwood, Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood. Although some critics found Kate an empty character, especially in comparison to the lavish details about what goes into a piece of Chanel couture, I thought the stark differences between necessarily fussy tailoring and workaday Inwood compelling. Both Kate and Patrick bear the weight of heritage (they eventually move back to Ireland, after their marriage) on shoulders already heavy with the demands of making enough money to pay the bills and taking care of aging parents. The frivolously fuchsia fluff that even sticks in Kate’s hair as she coaxes fresh-from-France tweed into submission seems a world away from the blood and bones that Patrick works with every day.

Kelby reminds us that Kennedy wanted his wife to have her Chanel as a gesture of forgiveness, and while the “For what?” is properly glossed over in historical terms, today we all know the answer–just as we all know that it takes frivolity and artistry, along with blood and bones and guts, to sustain a marriage. Kate sometimes yearns for more of the fluff and glamor that she is partially privy to behind the scenes at Chez Ninon, but there they refer to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy as “The Wife,” a chilling reminder of how hollow her role sometimes was. In sticking to her own path and heart, Kate ultimately gains her own true life.

Yet the suit, and not its seamstress, is what we remember. I highly recommend this small, sharp book for all fans of historical fiction.


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