REVIEW: Under the Stars of Paris by Mary Burchell
“Just pretend that the man you wish to marry is standing before you,” the famous designer Florian instructed Anthea as she waited to model the wedding dress in the grand finale of his Paris Spring Collection. But the man Anthea wished to marry was out there in the salon–with the woman who had taken Anthea’s place as his future bride.
This one comes highly recommended with lavish praise. It makes me think a little of the documentaries “Valentino – the Last Emperor” and “Dior and I” both of which, along with the hissy fits from the designers, show the behind the scenes hard work done by the other people of the ateliers. There’s also a life changing scene in a Parisian beauty salon which took me back to a part from Olivia de Havilland’s memoir.
The heroine isn’t a musician this time. Instead Anthea (Burchell seemed to like this name) becomes involved in the world of haute couture (after all, this is France). Monsieur Georges Florian is not a demanding conductor or pianist but instead one of the top designers in the country. Models are referred to as mannequins and dresses as models which caused me to pay closer attention until I got used to this terminology. It’s also a time when mannequins were attached to certain houses by contract and certain mannequins were intended to show certain models during shows.
It is Anthea’s good fortune that, with only 50 francs left to her name after two months in Paris without securing a job, her coloring and figure almost exactly duplicate that of a mannequin who had the temerity – or at least this is the impression given to Anthea by the Directrice of the house – to break her leg a week before the debut of the new collection. This inconveniencing young woman was to have had the plum prize of wearing the pièce de résistance – The Wedding Dress, spoken of with such reverence that Anthea hears it in Capitals.
On the day of the show, the irony is that the young woman who supplanted Anthea in the heart of her erstwhile fiancé is in the audience, along with the blackguard Michael, and will see Anthea parading before them in what Anthea should have worn down the aisle at her wedding. When he learns of this, just as Anthea is about to step out on the runway, Anthea sees in Monsieur Florian a bit of sympathy and a touch of heart. Buck up, he tells her, and forget this stupid man. Instead “look as you will look one day for his lucky successor.” Anthea then sails out and owns the moment.
Who is the hero? We are given two choices. Diplomat Englishman Roger and Anthea share past experience of being unlucky in love and Roger is wonderfully attentive. Meanwhile Michael appears on the scene but shows more pique at how Anthea’s new job and possibly being linked with Florian could cause a scandal at home. Anthea’s spirited defense and depression of his pretensions at now having anything to say where she’s concerned set him back on his heels a bit. Still, despite what a jealous fellow Florian mannequin insinuates about first Anthea’s relationship with Florian and later with Roger, Anthea is sure what she and her fellow Brit share is merely friendship.
Cattish Heloise isn’t finished with Anthea yet, though, and masterminds what ought to be Anthea’s public downfall at the salon only for M. Florian to save her bacon even as he makes it perfectly clear what he thinks of her actions. He is impressed when Anthea owns her mistake and refuses to point fingers.
The 1950s backdrop is sketched in with Burchell’s typical ease and care. It’s slightly shocking that in this pre-Twiggy era, Anthea and the other mannequins actually eat more than just lettuce leaves. Peroni, the temperamental opera singer whom we’ve met before in some of the Warrender Saga books, is mentioned. Everything is gay and carefree. Anthea’s family are the type to know people who have French country villas even if nosey, prying people live in them. It’s also a world in which the daughters of the wealthy head to Paris for their trousseaux which they select without a passing thought for the price.
M. Florian once again saves Anthea – this time from the spite of Michael’s second choice for a bride. I’d say Michael and Eve are well matched and will hopefully spend a lifetime making each other miserable. Florian often speaks to Anthea in that slightly indulgent and amused way that the older and more worldly Burchell heroes spoke to their heroines and describes her as the innocent, naive mannequin suitable to wear his more youthful, endearing creations. Hmmm, that doesn’t go over entirely well with Anthea who protests that it makes her sound simple. Ah, this seems to be just what the Great Man is looking for in the cynical, unbelieving world of the day.
WARNING – this is 1950s and fur is still seen as luxurious and glamorous. And M. Florian takes the opportunity to display his latest, breathtaking creation on Anthea during an evening at the Opera. Oh, what grandeur, what magnificence, what a display. M. Florian directs Anthea exactly in how to show the cloak off to maximum benefit. The audience might gasp over the exquisite cloak but it is Anthea who gasps over the real meaning of why M. Florian has her wearing it while he is taken aback to discover that Anthea can be mulish when she doesn’t want to be used and has quite a kick to deliver to anyone who attempts it. I think the poor man was actually stunned by her actions but her explanation of why she’s so angry at him gets him to think and actually regret what he tried to do. By telling him she had thought him a better man, she makes him want to become one. It’s kind of a grovel scene on his part but without the actual groveling.
So yes, Burchell had me wishy-washing, just slightly, over the hero. There’s Roger who is what Anthea calls an awfully nice friend – M. Florian almost shudders over the description and fervently hopes never to be spoken of thusly – and then M. Florian himself. First it’s Roger in the lead who is so kind and considerate and sensitive to Anthea’s still raw feelings about Michael then the Great Man will do something nice for Anthea which for another might earn at the very least a severe scolding. Both seem more interested in her than she appears to notice but then it’s well established that Anthea is naïve and trusting. The two men, though, seem to be mentally sizing up the potential rival in each other. Then Roger tells Anthea something which “clears the decks” of the brotherly feeling she’d had for him up until then – something that M. Florian picks up on at once as he so often does with things about Anthea. .
Of course anyone who has read many – well, actually, any – Burchell books knows who will be waiting for Anthea to walk down the aisle towards him. What struck me while reading “Under the Stars of Paris” is that in this book, I got a better glimpse of the hero falling for Anthea well ahead of the end. Or perhaps I’m just getting better at discerning this in Burchell’s books. Anyway, here I saw clues and demonstrable evidence he was a goner. And while Anthea might be described as naïve and innocent, she’s also got a sturdy backbone and goes into this marriage with her eyes open. She knows it probably won’t always be smooth sailing, that actually this is impossible given his temperament, but she’s ready for it and prefers him over the nice but bland marriage she could have had. B+