I first came across this book in a little charity shop – it had a different cover and didn’t really stand out. But when I opened it, pulled apart the slightly tea-stained leaves and started to read – well, within a couple of pages I loved it.
Elegance is, as the title suggests, about elegance. Or rather, the search for it. But I would argue, perhaps, that what this book is really about is confidence. It doesn’t make for quite such a good title, granted, but it is true. Louise Canova is in a fading marriage that was potentially never blooming to begin with, and when the novel opens we get a very clear sense of who she is; somebody who is wilting, on the outside of their own life, under appreciated and downtrodden. Someone who is stuck in a rut and very possibly isn’t helping themselves.
One day, Louise comes across a book in a charity shop (much like myself, I now realise…) – but this one is an A-Z of style written by French fashion expert Madame Antoine Dariaux. Tessaro emulates the style of the French book throughout her own; with chapters entitled A: Accessories through to Z: Zips by way of I: Ideal Wardrobe and Q: Quality/Quantity (that age old dilemma!) However, it would be a mistake to think that this book is a style guide, or a flippant fashion story – it isn’t. It’s wonderful. It takes us on a journey, the story of a woman who is fairly low on her luck and her path back to herself, her path to confidence, self-worth and yes, ok, elegance. Supported by some great friends in the form of Colin and Ria (I particularly like the moment Ria dashes to the Ritz to swap outfits with Louise when she realises she is dressed terribly for a date – the mark of a true friend) Louise begins to learn that the end of her marriage to her husband is not the end of the world, and that in fact, there is much more to learn about life even when you think you’re old enough to know it all. A revelation about her husband (to tell you now would be a spoiler) gives the story a slightly different angle, and by the end of the book you are rooting for Louise like nobody’s business. She’s a fantastically likeable heroine, you do feel sorry for her, at times, but you want her to succeed; she’s that friend you want to shake by the shoulders and say to: you’re so wonderful, you’re such a catch, why oh why can’t you see it for yourself.
Darker issues are explored within the chapters, which are not really about accessories at all – we get a glimpse into Louise’s childhood in which her thirteen-year-old self finds her mother “her eyes glassy and swollen, with some sort of stain on the front of her nightgown” – and calls the ambulance, and we see the disappointment of men echoed more than once. At times, this is a sad novel, but not overbearingly so – rather it is quietly sad, and lifts itself up, so that the redeeming feeling is definitely one of hope. Tessaro includes some heartwarming lines: “She’s a real black classic polo neck of a friend. And after all, life’s too short for anything else,” and above all, she makes you care about Louise – we want her to find a better life, we want her to be happy, because, well, she deserves it. And to feel that strongly about a fictional character; that’s the mark of some good writing.