October Blood by Francine du Plessix Gray (Simon & Schuster: $16.95; 256 pp.)
In “October Blood,” the ever-fashionable Francine du Plessix Gray turns her novelistic attention to the most fashionable of current topics, the mother-and-daughter pair. Not the typical pair: No, Gray chooses Diana Vreeland, the dominating spokeswoman of fashion’s modern age, as the inspiration for her maternal character.
She names her Vreeland variation Nada--as in Nothing--Fitzsimmons, a name that serves as an arch put-down of the world that D. V. made.
Nada, fashion editor of Best magazine in New York from the late ‘30s into the ‘70s, preens her way across the decades like a diva who can’t get off the stage. She makes pronouncements--"Elegance Is Refusal"--with the fervor of someone professing the faith. “Vincent,” she exclaims, “an idea. Why not do a story on the Duchess of Lerma! She’s given her entire castle to an order of Franciscan nuns and kept two rooms in it, one for herself and one for her maid.”
Vincent, travel editor of the Best, knows Nada-talk as well: “What bliss, two little chalk-white cells in a desolate corner of Extremadura, the plainest bread. . . .”
Nada chums with Elsa Maxwell, Coco Chanel and other cafe society darlings. She wears only black or beige dresses by Paris couturier Cristobal Balenciaga. And she writes a column called “Why Not” as in “Why not cover your walls in precious, nearly extinct alligator?”
All of this Nada-ness has its origins in Vreeland’s own writing, her recent autobiography, “D. V.,” and perhaps her earlier book, “Allure,” as well. In some instances, Nada steals direct quotes, as when she defines style: “It is something possessed by certain thoughts and certain animals.” As the story builds, so many recycled quotes come from Nada’s lips that she could easily be reduced to nada but a knock-off.
What saves her is the role she plays as mother. Vreeland has not written extensively on her relationship with her family. Gray’s material on mother Nada thus seems fresh, particularly so, since she poses the often unflattering question of how life with a mother like Nada affects a child. Paula Fitzsimmons, Nada’s daughter, is a girl who never knew her father (“I think he died before I was born”); reads palms at her mother’s parties, locks herself in small, dark, closets; faints at fashion shows, and hides behind the Shakespearean characters she plays on the stage at school.
But, for all her personal problems, she proves to be a flip and funny narrator. The book is filled with biting humor, and much of it trips off the tongue of this jaded child. Even when she describes such terrorizing fears as being left behind at fashion shows, “like a stray package at some couturiers or countess’s salon,” she keeps a cool, ironic tone that serves as a punchy counterpoint to Nada’s rococo fashion repartee.
As a teen-ager, Paula scorns her mother’s friends calling them “dressed-up nitwits.” She scorns her mother, as well, charging that “she’d worn me like a piece of jewelry for eighteen years.” She has a nervous breakdown, spends time in a psycho ward, flees on a Greyhound bus and there meets Julian, a one-armed war hero and ex-priest. She marries him. And after a honeymoon in Italy, she takes him home. Back to the world she had once OD’d on.
When Paula is sure that the power has shifted, she reflects: “First step to sanity, bucking mom’s world. Step two, picking up its choice bits.”
An introspective sort, she recognizes that she could easily repeat the cycle, this time in the role of Nada. “If I don’t watch out I might become just like the woman who bullied me around, victim takes on the mask of the oppressor,” she observes.
This is a hopeful insight on Paula’s part, since her adult life has already taken on several characteristics of her mother’s. Her childhood friend, Nicholas, who has not married, has insinuated himself into Paula’s family life, just as Nada’s fashion friends once did. Nada herself has come to live with Paula and Julian, and Julian has embraced Nada and her world with envy and admiration. What is more, Paula has a daughter of her own, named Georgia.
Gray shows herself to be a talented and thorough reporter by way of the meticulously re-created fashion history that she uses as a backdrop for her novel. Unfortunately, late in the story, she goes after “fashion food” with the same fastidious attention to detail when Nicholas opens a So-Ho restaurant. We wade through quail eggs in naturtium leaves and shitaki mushrooms, snails in garlic cream, scallops in cranberry sauce, all in the same sitting, to the point where it seems we have been force fed 30 years of Nada’s back issues.
Gray is writing about trends, after all, and trends are tricky business. Identify them before they are full blown and you overstate them. Identify them too late, and it’s even worse. Gray may have lingered too long. By now, the national taste for precious and exotic foods seems to be nearly satiated. This dampens our appetite for Gray’s in-depth coverage of that scene. The same problem with timing applies to her choice of young Georgia’s penchant for roller-skating her way around town. It seems a detail plucked from the In list of 1982.
The time frame for this story does not extend much beyond the early 1980s, and the fads are too recently failed to come off as anything but out of date. Perhaps Gray the ironist factored that in when she chose them.
“October Blood” is, in that case, unfashionably chic, a timeless family struggle set in the glittering world of what everybody has recently stopped doing.