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Beauty Marks: Patricia Volk's Lessons In Womanhood

Patricia Volk is an essayist, novelist and memoirist. She grew up in a restaurant-owning family in New York City.
Random House
Patricia Volk is an essayist, novelist and memoirist. She grew up in a restaurant-owning family in New York City.

I've loved Patricia Volk's writing ever since I read her evocative 2002 memoir, Stuffed, which told the story of her grandfather — who introduced pastrami to America — as well as the rest of her family, who fed New Yorkers for more than 100 years in their various restaurants. Stuffed, like the best food memoirs, served up so much more on its plate than just a bagel and a schmear. So when I picked up Volk's new memoir, Shocked, my appetite was already whetted for the humor of her writing, its emotional complexity and smarts. What I wasn't prepared for was a brilliant, boisterous memoir that breaks new ground in terms of the memoir form and also the archetypal story of the mother-daughter bond. Shocked, which comes encased in an eye-popping deep pink book jacket, triumphantly lives up to its title.

"Everyone tells me my mother is beautiful," writes Volk on the second page of her memoir, and there are plenty of photographs in Shocked to attest to the blond goddess loveliness of Audrey Morgen Volk. In the luxurious Upper West Side apartment the Volk family calls home during the 1940s and '50s, Audrey schools her daughters (Patricia and her older sister, Jo) in the art and rules of beauty. Audrey has a lot of rules: "You only get to make a first impression once." "A woman needs a ring and a mink." "A woman should have twenty four upholstered hangers in her closet and love each item hanging on them." Volk and her sister are nowhere near Audrey's Lana Turner league when it comes to looks. Nonetheless, when Volk is old enough to go to boy-girl parties, her mother will ask her when she gets home: "Were you the prettiest girl there?" Looking back, Volk comments: "Is there a way to answer that question that doesn't make you cringe?"

Just as she's entering adolescence, however, Volk comes across a memoir her mother has taken out from a local bookstore lending library. It becomes Volk's "transformative book," the book that arms her to start separating from her mother. The book is called Shocking Life, by the famous haute couture designer Elsa Schiaparelli. From here on in, Volk's own memoir zig-zags between the two titanic female figures — her mother and Schiaparelli — who impressed their ideas of beauty and womanhood on her. Schiaparelli was one of those "ugly-beautiful" women who make their mark through the force of personality and imagination. An intimate of surrealist artists like Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali, Schiaparelli blurred the lines between art and fashion. Inspired by Dali's loony re-creation of the Venus de Milo with drawers, "Schiap" as she was called, designed a women's skirt suit with drawers and hardware for pockets. Born with raised moles on her cheek that loosely resembled the constellation of The Big Dipper, Schiaparelli didn't have them removed; rather, she commissioned Cartier to make her a Big Dipper brooch, with diamonds for stars, mirroring the pattern of the moles on her face. Instead of the classic fur coat that Audrey Volk swore by, Schiaparelli designed high-heeled ocelot fur bowling shoes, as well as a hat made out of the taxidermied face of a cheetah whose open mouth looked like it was swallowing Schiaparelli's head. Clearly, Elsa Schiaparelli and Audrey Volk would never be likely to sit down together for a ladies' lunch at Schrafft's.

I cannot tell you, apart from its other virtues, how much fun this memoir is to read. Volk has caught something of Schiaparelli's surrealist approach to art: Her narrative structure is exuberantly loopy, and the gorgeous color illustrations and photos scattered throughout the book don't just supplement the text, but extend it outward, like a Tumblr. The in-joke photo here of Wallis Simpson posing in Schiaparelli's "lobster dress" is alone worth the price of this book.

Audrey Volk could have easily turned out to be the heavy of this tale and Schap the madcap mistress of misrule, but Volk is much too nuanced a memoirist to settle for easy categories. Both of her female role models are contradictory, and both give the young Patricia Volk provocatively mixed messages on work, family and how to consciously fashion herself into a woman. With its vivid cover and lush illustrations, Shocked is a physically beautiful book, but like Schiaparelli's designs, it commands deeper attention because of the wit and originality that inspire its composition.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.