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Louise Canova, heroine of Kathleen Tessaro's appealing first novel, has a life spiralling out of control. She cannot stop sleeping all the time, her eating patterns are masochistic, her tidiness-obsessed actor husband barely notices her, she has violent nightmares, and her one female friend is both envious and dismissive. Tessaro builds up this picture of a life in crisis with effective, hazy detachment.

Into this disordered setting arrives, via a second-hand bookshop, a tall and slim volume also entitled "Elegance". Bad Love? Instantly, it appeals to our heroine and each of its chapters, such as "F for Fur" or "Y for Yachting", becomes a conduit for Louise's transformation, her preoccupations and her painful memories. Although she's not exactly Diana Vreeland, Madame Dariaux's fashion tips are engaging.

Soon they adorn Louise's walls: "Beauty is no guarantee of happiness, strive instead for elegance, grace and style," becomes the heroine's mantra. But the more prescriptive instructions are the ones I liked most. Her "Ideal Wardrobe" chapter is particularly captivating: "6pm. It will take you everywhere, from the bistro to the theatre The fashion details are vivid and atmospheric. The "harmonising sweaters" and "capacious brown alligator bags" conjure up a world where no one is at a loss.

Yet elegance, for Dariaux, is a fierce discipline. When it comes to accessories she commands, "Never be seduced by anything that isn't first-rate. There are perhaps too many slightly rootless passages of self-absorption, and an overlong underwear-shopping session. Yet as our heroine tries to come to terms with her difficult past, the book does examine how we can change our lives by altering our appearance. It is not nonsense to say that how we look deeply affects how other people treat us, and how other people treat us affects the way we lead our lives.

This is a point made often in Elegance, but with humour. When Louise begs her husband to find a term of endearment more feminine than "Pumpkin", the best he can come up with is "Little Sausage".

Inevitably, after Louise's great infatuation with Madame there follows a disillusionment. For what happens to ugly feelings in this environment of high co-ordination and alligator belts? Finally it is friendship, not "Elegance", that proves Louise's real saviour, and the friendships that develop through the book are drawn carefully and with insight.

It is a subtle counterpoint to the novel that, in the end, Mme Dariaux is shown not to be quite as dictatorial as at first she seems. She, too, has been on some kind of journey. At the close of her book, the woman who grandly counselled that comfort was the number one enemy of elegance changes her tune, advocating that "it is in the moments that we forget ourselves that we are at our most beautiful". You can find our Community Guidelines in full here.

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ISBN: So I picked it up. This is actually the cleanest chick-lit that I have read in the last couple of years and will probably hit you hard in the head a couple of times by making you reflect on your own wardrobe. Other than that it is a depressing, miserably dragging story about the lead character who is a thirty something woman who lives in a monotonous marriage and is a weepy doormat from page one. The married couple however seem to be more interested in decorating their house than in their marriage. No points to you in guessing how her marriage becomes a disaster soon or in guessing that the book slowly changes her to think deeply believe me, she does a lot of it!


A frumpy, depressed woman is reborn as an assertive diva in Tessaro's debut novel, thanks to a year-old style manual she discovers in a second-hand bookstore. Louise Canova is an American woman from Pittsburgh who lives in London with her chilly actor husband. Louise once dabbled in acting herself, but now works at a theater box office. She's overweight, badly dressed, has purely platonic relations with her husband and is surrounded by more-glamorous-than-thou types—her friend Nicki, a former model; her mother-in-law, a former model and a socialite—who condescend to her. Everything changes, however, when Louise discovers Elegance , a fashion guide from written by Genevieve Dariaux, a legendary and fictional Coco Chanel—like arbiter of taste. Quoting liberally from the guidebook, Tessaro writes a lighthearted contemporary version of Pygmalion. In this case, Louise is her own Professor Higgins, and using Dariaux's amusingly anachronistic is anyone wearing veils these days?

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