A motley collection of previously published essays on topics ranging from Anne Frank to Bill Blass, by a New Yorker staffer and biographer (Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, 1999, etc.).
Thurman—multilingual, articulate, globe-trotting, charmingly snide—can be a daunting companion for a stroll down the lanes of contemporary cultural history. There seem few books she has not read, few relevant celebrities she has not encountered (including Jackie O), few museums whose fashion collections she has not memorized, few significant sites in New York, Paris and Milan she has not adorned. Many of these pieces deal with appearances—with women’s fashions (she has one essay about men’s clothing), and with the men and women who design them (there are substantial portraits of Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, Armani, Kawakubo, Versace and Scaasi). The earlier portions of the collection focus on literary matters. She reviews recent biographies of Edna St. Vincent Millay; has some harsh things to say about the “pedantry” of the definitive critical edition of Anne Frank’s diary; comments thoughtfully on Beloved, Charlotte Brontë, the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron and Irving Penn; expresses some reservations about Byatt’s Possession. Here, too, are pieces about bulimia, pearls (the world’s best pearls, she says, lie in the Persian Gulf), New York row houses and hair-straightening. She juxtaposes portraits of Madame de Pompadour (“one of those girls and women who are a pleasure to spoil”), Marie Antoinette, Teresa Heinz Kerry and Cleopatra. Her customary wit sparkles everywhere. The pouf, she says, was “a cross between a topiary and a Christmas tree.”
The author’s supreme confidence can sometimes segue into dismissiveness and arrogance, but this does not diminish the cumulative dazzle of her essays.