On the glowing recommendation of Maureen Corrigan of Fresh Air, I downloaded Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me by Patricia Volk last night and I am already half-way through. I’m obsessed!
Volk tells the story of growing up in a rather glamorous NYC restaurant family with a mother whom everyone — even the butcher — tells her is beautiful, and who takes beauty and womanhood very seriously, in that old-fashioned pancake-makeup-and-foundation-garments sort of way.
Every year for her birthday, her father makes a big production of giving her mother the same gift — “Shocking,” a perfume by Elsa Schiaparelli that came in packaging so luxurious and extreme it is downright surreal (see a rather hilarious illustration from the book, above, and of course Schiap was great friends with all the surrealists so that adjective’s no accident).
In her description of the annual gift-giving drama, Volk slips this one in just as the chapter is closing:
Always the perfume comes gift-wrapped. My father makes the paper himself. He uses Scotch tape and as many hundred-dollar bills as it takes to get the job done.
That kind of absolutely delightful anecdote — and there are many; the bit about every woman needing “a ring and a mink” is particularly wonderful — would make a terrific book, but it’s made doubly fascinating by interweaving stories from the life of Schiap, this woman who couldn’t be more different than her mother and yet, made the scent she wore with such aplomb (if not a desire to actually shock).
Volk first learned about the woman behind the beguiling bottle when, at the age of eleven — the ultimate age of transformative reading, as she points out — she found her mother’s rented copy of Schiap’s autobiography. It opened her eyes to an alternative universe of womanhood.
This memoir, then, is about navigating these two fascinating and very of-their-moment approaches to womanhood while making her own anthropological study of the art or science or craft whatever it is that we do to be females. In that anthropological spirit, she includes tons of totally charming illustrations.
In a word, I’m smitten. And while it’s one of those books I don’t want to end (yet I surely will in about 12 hours), I’m comforted that I have her previous memoir, Stuffed — focusing on that NYC restaurant family life — still to savor.