Welcome to the first installment of the Bonkbuster Summer Book Club, which is a couple of days late because we had to make a quick, dramatic trip to Gstaad for plot device reasons. Please pull out your tattered paperback copies of Shirley Conran’s Lace, a book that is not merely high camp, but rather stratospheric camp. High church canonical camp. It is the Westminster Abbey stained glass windows of camp.
Which one of you bitches is my mother?!
Before Lace, Shirley Conran had already written a UK bestseller, 1975's Superwoman, a book of advice for the home that positioned her as sort of a no-funny-business Martha Stewart for the women’s lib era. A Guardian interview described it as “the bestselling housework manual in which she told women life is too short to stuff a mushroom.”It was followed in rapid succession by Superwoman 2, Futurewoman: How to Survive Life After Thirty, and Superwoman in Action. She’d been married to a well-known designer and worked as editor of the London Observer fashion pages.
But it was nothing compared to her enormous success with Lace, which was published in 1982 and reads like a pop cultural bridge between the upheavals of the ’70s and the conservative, wealth-worshipping ’80s. The flap copy billed it thusly: “Lace takes the reader into the rarified world of five unforgettable women who are as beautiful, as complex and as strong as... lace.” It follows four girls—Maxine, Judy, Pagan, and Kate—from the world of girl’s boarding school in Gstaad to the heights of early ’80s career woman success. All the while they keep a secret: One of them got pregnant when they were teens and they banded together to handle it, none of them ever revealing that it happened and which girl it was.
The pump had already been primed by the success of Judith Krantz’s Scruples; her agent got a $750,000 advance for the manuscript, according to the New York Times. It was worth every penny; here are some sample lines: “He was the Nijinsky of cunnilingus.”
“Loneliness from time to time was the price of freedom, and freedom wasn’t a stars and stripes, Boy Scout idea, it was doing what you damn well wanted to do—all the time.”
And this masterpiece:
Urged by Robert, who wanted a row of little Roberts, she eventually consulted a doctor, not only to check that her fallopian tubes were unobstructed, but because after Robert made love to her, she felt a heavy turgid pain in her lower back, as if she were having a really nasty period. This sometimes lasted for hours, during which time Pagan would be tense and tearful, drop glasses, upset cups and ashtrays; she also started to suffer from insomnia. Not knowing that these were classic symptoms of a sexually aroused then frustrated female, Pagan would eventually get up at four in the morning and slug herself to sleep with a blissful half-pint glass of neat vodka.
“Vulnerability was bad for business. Judy preferred her reputation as an enfant terrible, a baby tycoon, the lethal little lady publisher who had already come a long way and intended to go much further. The image that Judy projected was that of a woman to be reckoned with—a woman who made you think ten percent faster when you were with her, but also a woman with a weakness for pretty shoes.”
Of Lili: “They were huge shining chestnut eyes, thickly lashed, that glistened as if a crystal tear were about to fall from each one.”
It sold millions of copies and was made into an ABC miniseries that struggled capture the book’s gleeful luridness in primetime—though they did market heavily on starlet Lili’s demanding to know which of the bitches was her mother—but was sufficiently successful to warrant Lace II, much to the dismay of the Times.
Well into her 80s at this point, Conran seems... fairly outrageous. The writer who did that Guardian piece concluded it:
At the door, she hands me a parcel, wrapped in tissue and ribbons. “These may not be your taste,” she says. “So you’d better open it now.”
Oh, crikey. Inside, is a pair of shorts (size: LARGE) made of white lace. They are from Zara, which means that, though she took the precaution of buying them on the roomy side, they are teeny – the kind of beauties that would look excellent on Lara Stone or Sienna Miller but not, alas, on me. Thank you, I say. I kiss her, the better to hide my expression. But she isn’t done yet. “You must wear them in bed,” she says, with reforming zeal, as I grab my umbrella. “They’re the new nightwear!”
Having duly learned what they did with the goldfish and which one of those bitches was Lili’s mother, Stassa and I put our heads together to talk about what the fuck was going on in this book.
Kelly: Where do we even start with this book? I guess let’s start with shock factor, which seems an important element of the bonkbuster. Did it shock or surprise you in the year of our lord and YouPorn, 2017?
Stassa: This book definitely has a lot of that. I was surprised that it opened with an abortion!
Kelly: For a 13-year-old girl, no less.
Stassa: Right! And then it was like the plot (messy and insane) was written with the sole purpose of touching on practically every taboo subject from there—teen pregnancy, abandonment, bribery, etc., etc.
Kelly: It really ran the gamut. It was like one of those road trip maps of America designed to hit every wacky tourist attraction possible.
Stassa: It’s funny because the cover of my book, a reissue from a few years ago, touted it as “before there was Fifty Shades of Grey” which really undersold this book. Like, EL James couldn’t conjure up the insanity of Lace on her best day.
Kelly: It makes that trilogy look the MOST phoned-in. It’s interesting to me generally how often pop culture has talked about sex through this avenue of luridness. Like we can talk about sex, but it has to be routed through teen pregnancy and exploitation and gross French soft-core porn photographers, etc, etc. But what’s really interesting about Lace is that it’s doing that, but Conran is, clearly, extremely pro female orgasm. She wants these characters to have fully realized, fulfilling sex lives.
Stassa: Right, like the Fifty Shades point of view is very much that sex happens to a woman (a virginal woman) and in Lace, sex and career are very important. Conran characterizes all of the women, their points of view, via their profession and the kind of sex they have.
Kelly: Predators are the villains of this book, but so are guys who are just shitty at sex.
Stassa: That’s a good way to put it. Which, let’s be honest, they are the villains of real life, too.
Kelly: It’s a completely bonkers novel—they run into more celebrities than IRL celebrities do—but in some senses, it did feel relatively true to life.
But then, I’m talking about the sex, but so much more loving description is dedicated to their very interesting and cool careers.
Stassa: I loved the two paragraphs about careers that we got as Conran introduced everyone.
Kelly: God, they were so good. I feel like I learned loads about editing the women’s pages of a British newspaper in the late ’70s.
Stassa: Like, it turns out that Judy invented Refinery29.
“But that was also a sign of maturity, mused Judy. You became an adult when you stopped caring what other people thought about you and started to care what you thought about them.... Was it a feature? she wondered professionally. She thought about a possible author, celebrities to interview, a quiz, and made a quick mental note to get one of the editors working on it. “Are You a Grown-Up Yet?” Not a bad title.
Kelly: Kate is clearly pretty close to Conran, with her newspaper background and a job writing bestselling books. Maxine is like, French Martha Stewart.
Judy’s intro was incredible. She loves to take the bus because her reader takes the bus and she wants to be close to their experiences.
Stassa: God, I loved Judy’s musings—the bus, the character of New York City.
Kelly: There are so many moments that are just like.... a character adjusts her glasses and thinks to herself, [paragraph from a women’s magazine in 1982].
Stassa: Haha, it’s true. Although I will say, I had to keep reminding myself that this was written in 1982. There were some moments, the weird racism with the Prince, that were clearly early ’80s. But, the interest in career and sex life, the treatment of the women as active rather than passive agents of the narrative, struck me as more contemporary.
Kelly: Yeah, here are a couple of passages in looking over my highlights:
“It was strange that not one of the girls queried the sexual double standard. They accepted that a boy could be driven uncontrollably mad by passion, but it never crossed their minds that it was understandable if a girl felt the same way.”
Although then you get a line like this, which was clearly written by somebody who grew up in the ’50s:
“By Pagan’s first wedding anniversary, the Kinsey Report had been quoted at her so much that she thought perhaps she had better check if she _was_ frigid. So she had an affair with her tennis coach, a cheerful Italian with good legs, gentle hands, and a voluptuous appetite.”
Poor Pagan, with her blue-balls inflicted alcoholism.
Stassa: Pagan is the worst though. PAGAN.
Kelly: She is the least active of any of the characters, except for when she blackmails the blackmailing chauffeur. But compared to Maxine and Judy and Kate she really doesn’t do as much.
Stassa: Yeah, she’s kind of just there to be sad, I guess.
It’s funny though, Conran is so good at characterization and slipping stuff like this in effortlessly and so deeply unconcerned with the plot. There’s so much detail everywhere, the color and material of furniture, of jewelry, of the texture of Lili’s clothes, and a derailed train. The “little green malachite butterfly” on a Cartier chain and the “apricot velvet couch.” So much detail.
Which, I guess when you want to throw boarding school, teen pregnancy, marriage and a bunch of other stuff in a book, there’s no way to do that with like elegance?
Kelly: This is one of those novels that in a hundred years they’ll use in advanced grad level seminars to figure out what people wore, because the detail is downright journalistic.
The plot is so shambling/borderline nonexistent but I also couldn’t stop reading. I was perfectly happy to lurch from absurd circumstance to absurd circumstance. Every time something wacky happened I was like, my god, 200 pages to go, how will she top this?
Also, I want an apricot velvet couch so much.
Stassa: The girls almost falling off the cliff that was disintegrating from beneath them was like an accidental metaphor for the book. They should have fallen off the cliff, but they managed to pull themselves out—just like Conran does with the plot.
I felt like Lili could have been her own book.
Kelly: Yeah! it was sort of wild that we just pop in every 60 pages to check what terrible thing is happening to her now.
Stassa: Right, and it was just like the standard bad stuff that happens to orphans in novels.
Kelly: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, now her foster parents have been killed trying to escape Hungary—back to Paris!”
The book reads a little like the generation that grew up in the ’40s/’50s explaining what it was like to kids today in the ’70s. Like how poorly educated girls were about sex and the consequences that could have.
Stassa: I just found this description of Lili in my notes and I laughed and loved it all over again, by the way.
“Star quality radiated from Lili. A cloud of black, soft hair hung to her shoulders, swept back from an oval face with high, slanting cheekbones. Her small nose had a faintly predator hook, her full lower lip was slightly too large, but when you looked at her you only noticed her eyes. They were huge shining chestnut eyes, thickly lashed, that glistened as if a crystal tear were about to fall from each one.”
Kelly: She is an anime character!
Stassa: I like too that, every once in awhile, Conran threw in a line that was like definitely made for an ’80s working woman. Like, “loneliness is the price of freedom.” I imagine women reading this while smoking aVirginia Slim and nodding their heads vigorously.
Kelly: You can definitely hear “Let the River Run” starting to swell over some of these vignettes. Although none of them really got Harrison Ford, did they?
Stassa: Nah, I think Conran forgot that there were men in the book. and like had to circle around to remind us every once in awhile.
Kelly: They’re like less interesting hats.
Stassa: Which, I might be wrong about this, but for a bonkbuster seems unusual. There’s definitely a lot of sex but relationships, or at least the pursuit of them, is not happening.
Kelly: Yeah, it’s very much not the overriding concern of the book. I cannot even remember who Kate ends up with, if anyone. After her married boyfriend’s wife leaves him and he finally offers her a ring, Judy asks herself why she would even bother. I couldn’t tell you the names of any of their partners. But I remember Guy, their fashion designer friend!
Stassa: I just know that the men have money. That’s about all I can tell you about them!
So, important question about this book: Have you seen the television movie?
Kelly: No! I couldn’t find it on streaming and I couldn’t bring myself to spend for the DVD. But a reader informs me via Twitter that she felt like she was missing out on all the really juicy stuff, thanks to the limits of primetime TV in the early 1980s.
However, the compensation is scenes like this, with Angela Lansbury doing a French accent as Aunt Hortense:
Stassa: I’m only interested because, first, in that clip Phoebe Cates has a terrible accent and, secondly, Angela Lansbury is Hortense.
Kelly: Oh no, I found the credits. I could honestly scream this is so perfect.
Stassa: This looks so terrible and so good. DOWN TO THE SAX MUSIC.
I have to say, when commenters picked this book, I was like “meh” but I’m pretty happy with the outcome. Really felt like an empowered ’80s lady and now I want a great hat.
Kelly: I was really disappointed we didn’t go with a Jackie Collins (AND I’M STILL MAD ABOUT NO AUEL) but I’m so glad to have read this. And also I want my apricot velvet couch.
Please join us again next month—late July—for Outlander.