Book Review: Lace by Shirley Conran

In the wake of the huge success of Fifty Shades of Grey, erotic fiction is now filling tables at the front of Waterstone stores as publishers jump on the randy bandwagan releasing, and re-releasing, anything with a whiff of sexy times.

I haven’t read Fifty Shades and I have no intention of doing so – bad writing turns me off as much as a misogynistic egotist and, from what I hear, Fifty Shades is a very badly written book about a misogynistic egotist, which sounds as erotic as a plate of cold rice pudding. Is it OK to have an opinion about something I haven’t read? I’m not sure it is, but I’m baffled as to why this particular book has caused such a stir. Have these people not heard of the internet? There’s sexier stuff on the average literary forum. And this is hardly the first time a book has walked the line between novel and porn-light. What about the queen of the bonkbuster and her randy stable hands, Jilly Cooper? Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Valley of the Dolls?  The terrifyingly bonkers, incest-stuffed Flowers In The Attic? And that’s just the very tip of the mainstream stuff – even more hardcore eroticia doesn’t require you sneaking into a Soho bookshop and coming out with a brown paper bag these days. And very few of these erotic novels if any, concern a female virgin acquiescing to her partner’s every whim in and out of the bedroom.

One of the recently re-released “bonkbusters” (although I think author Shirley Conran would take umbrage at that description)  is an eighties’ classic Lace, the Amanda Palmer to Fifty Shades‘ Girls Aloud. Conran, the ex-wife of Terence and mother of Jasper, was the original superwoman, the antithesis of the recent twee, cupcake vision of womanhood. She famously declared that “life’s too short to stuff a mushroom” and “I make no secret of the fact that I would rather lie on a sofa than sweep beneath it.” I would love to have her at my fantasy dinner party, although I would be careful not to serve stuffed mushrooms.

Conran started writing Lace as a sex instruction manuel for schoolgirls, but, bored of writing a dry textbook, she instead poured her indomitable spirit, vigour for life and thirst for equality into this book that went on to sell more than 3 million copies.

Lace, first released in 1982, is so much more than reworked fan-fic, it’s a sexy, glamorous book with feminist roots, where women rule in the boardroom as well as in the bedroom. Sure, there’s a lot of sex in it, but at the heart of Lace is the friendship of four incredibly successful self-made women. Their friendships and their careers are the most important things in their lives, even their children take a back seat  – I can’t remember which characters have children or which don’t. These women aren’t defined as mothers or wives, they don’t need a man to complete them, although they do all love male company (especially ones that are good with their hands). They are their own women, their qualities sharpened by each other.

The four women first meet at a Swiss finishing school in the 1940s. There’s sweet, seemingly-naive Kate; chaotic, confident Pagan; poised, polished Maxine and bolshy, driven Judy. The novel spans four decades and follows the women as they marry, divorce, start families, lose parents and husbands, fail, succeed and fail again. Along the way these women do have sex, and, at times, it’s rather raunchy (although the novel’s famous goldfish scene doesn’t involve, unhappily for them, any of the big four). But crucially Conran doesn’t pull the satin sheets over our eyes. In Lace, the sex isn’t always good, in fact, at times, it’s horrific and violent. When these women have good sex it’s with men who are good to them, who they love and are loved by. The cruel, bullying chauvinists are all terrible in bed (with the exception of the creepy but dexterous of finger, Prince Abdallah) and their performance, or lack of, is never the fault of the woman’s. Sex, Conran is telling us, is about teamwork and not about women rolling onto their backs and putting up with bad men and bad sex.

The story may cross forty years, but the book is unmistakably ’80s, even in the tone of the austere post-war years. It’s big, brash, loud, and status obsessed.  All the women are loaded (they work hard for it) and live in flash apartments or chateaux with wardrobes stuffed with elegant designer gear. They drink champagne like tea and hop on transatlantic flights like I take the bus. There’s not a lot of time for subtlety or poetry, Conran’s writing is concise and filmic and dialogue-led. The story fizzes along like a glass of Maxine’s chateau champagne, but although the plot is slight, driven on by the beautiful, mother-less Lili’s search for her mother, (“which one of you bitches is my mother?”), it’s a terrifically fun and feisy read.

by Suzanne Elliott

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