Bookscapes: The Pink Suit

The Pink Suit, by Nicole Mary Kelby.

“What a strange power there is in clothing.”–Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Pink Suit (Little, Brown, 2014) is the story of Kate, a talented Irish seamstress who works in Chez Ninon, a New York fashion house that has been commissioned to copy a Chanel suit, in raspberry pink, for the First Lady–the pink suit that Jackie Kennedy was wearing when her husband was assassinated.

But the heart of the story isn’t Jackie’s suit: it’s Kate’s obsession with making a perfect copy of a Chanel suit (a knockoff, in fashion terms) and what that tells us about a young woman whose entire life is focused on creating perfectly beautiful garments for Perfectly Beautiful People. In fact, when the story begins, Kate has no other life. Even her relationship with her sister is defined by her gifts of copied clothing, and she very nearly rejects Patrick, a butcher (what a telling occupation!) for Mr. Charles, who wants her to work for him in his new fashion house.

The strength of this beautifully constructed, highly stylized novel is the skillful way Kelby assembles its many significant elements. Obsession with beauty and perfection. Copying (with and without permission) and fakery as an essential part of the fashion industry. High-fashion, artistically-styled clothing as a concealment for unpleasant realities. Clothing as a symbol of role and social status: the Wife, the First Lady, Her Elegance (Jackie’s name never once appears). Details of fine fabric and exquisite stitchery, like the details of a painting or a sculpture. Ireland and Inwood (the Irish neighborhood in which Irish Kate lives) and the Irish Kennedy connection. America as the home of knockoff artists. And more, much, much more.

But through a series of events that are historically true and terrifyingly real (yes, the Inwood explosion really happened), Kate learns that the world of fashionable fakery is not a world she can live her life in. Real people need real work, real hopes, real love. While it is true that “a woman in a beautiful suit can go anywhere,” the only place Kate is able to wear her personal and unauthorized copy of The Wife’s pink suit is a knockoff amusement park, where she is soon discovered as a fake First Lady.

If there’s anything unconvincing about The Pink Suit, it is the ending, where the suit is revealed not as a symbol of forgiveness (that was wrong) but as a symbol of strength. That may be, but it happens too quickly, almost clumsily, so that the revelation feels not-quite-earned. This is a minor flaw, though. It doesn’t compromise the original design and beautiful execution of this daringly ambitious novel. Read it, enjoy it, but most of all think about it.

And then go look in your closet.

20 comments on “Bookscapes: The Pink Suit

  1. Woop, woop! Love this new blog, and have The Pink Suit on my reading list now. Thanks, Susan.

  2. I think that suit would be recognizable even today. It’s iconic–and what a perfect choice for a book subject. Lots of authors (including me!) are probably wishing they’d thought of it.

  3. Just read the comments about the book The Pink Suit. How fascinating. I actually had a beautiful pink wool dress bought in 1963 before that day in Dallas. I don’t look like Jackie Kennedy but have found that people equate dark hair, slim build, and a pink outfit with Jackie especially if you are in NYC. Was in NYC in April of 1964 and people would turn their heads and stare at me. I remember years later when I was in a discussion about Emily Dickinson and how she always wore white. They thought that was eccentric. Most ot the people in the group were much younger but I was going through a financial and clothing crisis and thought how much simpler it would be it we didn’t have to make so many choices about clothing. I sure Emily liked having everything that matched and could be bleached since she did all the baking and cooking.

  4. The “real” suit is only a starting point, Linda. I don’t think the book is painfully evocative in that way–although it is painful in some other ways.

  5. Susan, I can’t look at that suit without feeling like a 13 year old again and seeing splashes of blood and wanting to cringe and turn away! What a powerful image! I might read that book someday – but not yet.

  6. Want to share again! Not the usual kind of book I read but just finished Where The Crawdads Sing. WOW! Impressed me almost like the first Susan and Bill Albert book I read years ago. It’s a book for every woman to read for a score of reasons.

  7. Thanks, Holly–always glad to have recommendations. (There is no such thing as too many books.)

  8. I have both these books you have noted here and The Pink Suit is tucked somewhere deep in my Nook. Thank you so much for reminding me that I need to read this book! I am ready for a new book in about 20 pages too! I really enjoyed Jennifer Robson’s book also! What I am reading now is Joy Calloway’s “Secret Sisters”, after reading her “The Fifth Avenue Artists Society”. Both excellent reads! Can’t wait for more from this wonderful author!

  9. Thank you for cross-posting! Interesting book, and I am old enough to remember that pink suit and the woman who wore it. I’m glad to be living now.

  10. What an insightful review, Susan, and congratulations on adding this companion blog to your existing Lifescapes one. I appreciate all you share on books, writing, and the business of publishing. Thank you for adding this to your inviting new site!

  11. Thank you Susan. This looks like something I’d like to read. I’ll add it to my pile.

  12. Come mid-October through early May, Susy. The rest of the year is beastly hot. But so is everyplace else these days, I’m afraid. Prettiest month: April.

  13. Another wonderful post. Books and everything about books is thoroughly interesting.

  14. Looks good, Virginia. Always glad to see books about real people in real times–and the Channel/Schaperelli feud offers promising potential. Maybe think of these as clothing/fabric-themed real-people novels?

  15. To share; new book The Last Collection,a story of the rivalry between Coco Channel and Elsa Schaperelli. Their war and the real war during their lifetimes are interestingly presented. Really enjoyed it.

  16. I so love your book recommendations and those of all of your followers. I have been a reader for most of my life and am always looking for what to read next. Thank you for always being there with your suggestions as well as your wonderful books, I have not been to the hill country but now it is on my must do list!

  17. Books we share have a special significance, too, Rosemary–and occupy a unique place in our experience. That’s why I love book groups. Always feels like we’re all gathered around the same heart/hearth fire, no matter where in the world we are.

  18. I am going to enjoy these posts. I am a reader and I have been for most of my life. I read and enjoy stories without really thinking about the work and time spent creating them. I do re-read favorites often. I don’t often think about the symbolism the story contains. Perhaps books will carry more than just an enjoyable story now.

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