Back in our early teens my friend Rachel was my source of bonkbusters, well read copies of Judith Krantz and Sidney Sheldon were smuggled home in my school bag, read at break neck speed and returned to be giggled over - possibly before they were missed. Later I read a lot of Jilly Cooper and hotly defended her writing to the more sceptical of my acquaintance, I don't think I ever read or watched 'Lace' though.
It's amazing what a respectable publisher can do for a book - I would never have read 'Valley Of The Dolls' if Virago hadn't republished it yet it was an eye opener. The endorsement of Canongate releasing 'Lace' had the same effect, so when they sent me a copy I pounced on it with real enthusiasm and stormed through it in a weekend (I hear there was some sort of sporting event on but I was so immersed it totally passed me by). It's easy to remember that books like this are a bit trashy, that the writing often leaves something to be desired, and that the descriptions of sex are frequently more laughable than erotic. It's just as easy to forget how much fun these books are to read - and perhaps what I would hardly have realised at 14 - what a powerfully feminist message there can be behind the best of them.
'Lace' is undoubtedly a feminist book, and definitely amongst the best of those great 80's doorstops full of scandal, glamour, and dodgy shagging. It opens with a heart-rending description of a 13 year old girl undergoing a back street abortion, flips forward 15 years to four women being summoned to meet a notorious actress who has a bombshell to drop; one of them is her mother, but which one... After that we're pitched back almost 30 years to a Swiss finishing school where the 4 first met and from there on in explore their lives and fates.
A lot happens. Conran throws everything into this book so along with plot there's a whole lot of stuff about the fashion industry (strictly at the couture level), interior design, public relations, how Champagne is made, journalism, the magazine trade - anything I guess Conran had an inside track on or an interest in. Her women are held together by tight bonds of friendship which makes them infinitely stronger together than they would be apart. That's one good feminist message. She has them talk again and again about how women should have been taught how to earn money and what to do with it when they had it. All the characters are successful, all do it without the help of men to the point that when one is given a fortune by an elderly lover she's defrauded out of the lot by an unscrupulous lawyer - it doesn't matter, she soon makes her own fortune. That's another good feminist message.
After that take your pick. I've seen this described as the book mothers didn't want their daughters to read. If I had a daughter I really would want her to read it. Yes, she tells us, losing your virginity can be disappointing - but it will probably get better. If it doesn't than it's not good enough, you deserve better. She touches on rape and violence within marriage, as well as outside of it. One of the women becomes an alcoholic, a subject probably even more taboo than underwhelming marital performance. Another woman endures 3 years of infidelity whilst her friend has to settle for being the other woman for the man in her life. Eventually she will decide not to marry him on the basis that he's used to being unfaithful to his wife - and this way she gets to keep her identity and hard won independence. When Conran tackles the sexual exploitation of a young girl she's bang on the money describing how grooming works and how her character is manipulated first into a relationship, later into making porn films. All of this is still depressingly relevant.
30 years on in a climate of economic gloom it's been really encouraging to read a book that essentially tells you to pick yourself up and try again if things go wrong, and that absolutely insists the happy ending isn't a ring on your finger but having friends you can rely on. You can keep your fifty shades of impossibly rich and demanding men, I'll stick with sisters doing it for themselves.