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Susan’s Bookshelves: Lace by Shirley Conran

Lace isn’t the kind of book you forget in a hurry and I have vivid memories of reading it on a family camping holiday in France in 1983 when it had just come out in paperback. My overriding impression, 41 years later, is that there was an awful lot of sex. There is, but maybe not quite as much as I remembered.

Shirley Conran, whose fortune this novel made, died last month and it was reading her obituaries, and social media discussion about her work, which prompted me to return to Lace to see what I think now.

The plot is neat. Four very different young women are at finishing school in Switzerland just after the war. One of them gets pregnant. Now, the resultant child, a world-famous actor in her twenties, wants to know which of them was her mother. So at one level it’s the old “suo padre, sua madre” device as in the Marriage of Figaro and hundreds of other  “parentage reveal” fictions.  It takes Conran hundreds of pages – the novel is as fat as David Copperfield – to unravel all this with lots of diving back and forth in the chronology and plenty of distraction, along with the same incident  often being presented from more than one perspective, because there are five protagonists although it’s a third person narrative.

The sex is graphic and always from the female point of view which was refreshing in 1982 and to an extent still is. She’s very concerned about female orgasm and that really wasn’t much discussed when I first read Lace so it probably helped to liberate attitides and maybe in a small way even to educate. There are also ugly scenes of male domination, violence and exploitation which somehow feel less false and contrived than the consensual sex. She is, however, very good at getting into the mindset of sex-obsessed young women who have a lot more curiosity than experience – yup, that’s exactly how it was even in the 1960s in my girls’ grammar school.

How do you break into a big complex plot? Often from a side alley.  Think of Tolstoy’s unhappy Oblonsky family, Daphne du Maurier’s burning Manderley or Jane Austen’s famous observations about rich men and girls in need of them. There is no plot-driving reason to open Lace with thirteen year old Lili’s abortion without anaesthetic. As an incident it’s peripheral but, clunky as it is structurally, it makes an excruciatingly arresting first few pages and draws the reader in.

I think Conran over-eggs the “glamour” rather tiresomely.  I got, on this reread,  pretty weary of reading about clothes and luxurious rooms. Of course there’s a bit of squalor too but much less.  Women liked this book – it sold over 3 million copies. I wonder how many men read it? Did adolescents read it for titillation as my generation read Peyton Place? My elder son was 11 during that camping holiday and I’d always told both my children that they could read anything they wanted without any form of parental censorship. “Would you let me read Lace?” he asked me with a grin because he’d seen it in my hand for days and, for all I know, dipped into it on the quiet. “Yes” I said, after a bit of a gulp. “But I’m not sure you’d understand or like it”. I don’t know whether he ever did.

Most novelists firmly assert (to avoid litigation, I’ve always assumed) that their characters are entirely fictitious. Conran does the opposite. At the end of Lace she cheerfully declares that hers are nearly all based on real people – and she tells us who they are, too. I can’t help wondering how many friends or enemies that made her at the time because she isn’t polite about them all. Of course the finishing school is based on the one she attended.

It’s not a brilliant novel. There are flaws. But in its way it broke new ground and did its bit for feminism. It is, however, still a page turner and much more than a “bonkbuster”. I re-read it in just a few days and, once again, she held my attention to the end. So I’m glad, on balance, that Conran had such a success with it.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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