Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli and Me by Patricia Volk

I ended up loving everything about this book, yet when I first pulled it from my library and looked it over, I thought it might go into the give away bag without a reread and blog entry. The gorgeous, heavy and shagreen-pebbled dust jacket, in shocking pink of course, convinced me to at least give it a try. It had been a long time since I read it and didn’t remember it at all. It hooked me immediately.

I love art and fashion and I love books about relationships between mothers and daughters, so this book is my flagon of fragrance. Author Patricia Volk intersperses memories of her beautiful mother with stories about surrealistic designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who was not beautiful but was fearlessly creative. Because there is just enough similarity between the women to make the comparison apt and interesting, it works.

Volk also slips photographs, photo copies of ephemera and drawings between the chapters to illustrate the stories. The whole thing is as beautiful as the expensively and imaginatively packaged Schiaparelli perfumes the author describes, but there is enough insight and it’s so smartly written that it doesn’t come off as a lightweight bon bon of a book. It gave me a lot to think about: my relationship to my own mother and how it formed my personality; the arts and how fashion is influenced by history–the way World War Two made “look at me” surrealistic fashion out of vogue; how beauty shapes personality; what makes a marriage work , etc.

The book ends with a series of richly colored photographs like the grand finale at a fireworks show. Volk offers a lot of take-away wisdom at the end of the book as well and if it wasn’t such a beauty of a book, I would have been underlining quite a bit. I especially loved how she describes her impressions of reading Schiaparelli’s autobiography at ten compared to rereading it in her 60s. She also understands her mother differently too, obviously, and her clear-eyed, humorous and admiring accounts of both women are entertaining and thought provoking.

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