Marius Gabriel’s Tour of a Resurrected Paris
The Second World War ravaged many countries around the world, but it could be argued that its devastating effects were stronger on the European continent more than anywhere else. As the Nazi war machine ploughed from one country to the next it left the kinds of scars that can still be felt in our very own modern times. France suffered a fate slightly different than others, surrendering to the Nazi occupation after the Allied army had been completely circumvented. For a few years they lived under the thumb of the Reich, but finally came the liberation, and Marius Gabriel’s The Designer begins in 1944 as a newly-married Copper Reilly arrives in Paris soon after the Nazis were pushed back.
She is already stuck in a rather unhappy marriage, and soon after her husband allows himself an indiscretion, she demands her freedom and goes out on her own. Left completely alone in the great city that has just started to recover its former splendour, Copper finds herself in a somewhat hopeless and directionless state. That is when her life takes an very sudden and unexpected turn into a an old and decaying fashion studio, one where she finds an unlikely friend, the timid and reserved fashion designer Christian Dior. Convinced of his genius and intent on having the world see the man’s works of art, Copper is struck with a sudden gust of inspiration. She arms herself with a camera and typewriter, determined to dive straight into the surprising and colourful world of fashion journalism. As Copper tries to navigate her professional and romantic lives, the city around her is slowly rebuilding and returning to its coveted former glory.
A City Alight with Life
Paris is probably one of the most written-about cities in the history of literature, with both fiction and non-fiction authors having seemingly explored it from its very foundation to today. As such, it is quite difficult to offer us readers something that feels different and isn’t just a rehash of all the tremendous metaphors and comparisons we’ve been shown over the years. Marius Gabriel manages to swim through these waters quite adeptly and focuses on an extremely specific time in the city’s history, one that feels very different from anything that came before and after.
He describes it all in very vivid detail and manages to convey this strange and paradoxical atmosphere that comes with the euphoria of victory combined with pain and desolation of having lost so much, never to be seen again. We get to see the best and worst of what these times have to offer, of what they can bring out in people. However, I will say that Gabriel tends to focus more on the positive aspects rather than the negative ones, consistently bringing up the idea that there is hope for those who remain alive and that even the worst situations can indeed be turned around. Additionally, I find this world-building to be of great help in allowing the reader to immerse themselves in the story as well as its characters.
The Personalities of Fashion
Setting aside the historical part of this novel (and the few forgettable anachronisms that come with it) and focusing on the story itself, what we have here is a very engaging look at the fractured life of a young and directionless soul, one that feels extremely realistic and relatable, for haven’t we all felt that way at some point? Copper is a fun protagonist to follow around who is quite balanced in terms of flaws and qualities, making her feel more human as opposed to just a vehicle to advance the plot. Her friendship with Christian Dior is a fun thing to observe and is an interesting take on the historical figure, eventually pushing her onto a path of self-realization.
The world is full of characters who all have some meaning inside the story, that is to say there is always some purpose to their presence, whether it’s to help, serve as an obstacle, illustrate a point or convey some sort of message. While I wouldn’t say that any of them are exceptionally memorable above everyone else, they have a real life feeling to them, in the sense that as we pass them by we are left with vague and fragmented memories of their distinctive qualities. We may wonder what fate befell them, but ultimately our focus returns on the life in front of us.
The Final Verdict
With everything considered, The Designer is a solid piece of historical fiction that will definitely cater to those of you who enjoy post-war Paris as a setting and enjoy a combination of romance and self-discovery. It is a tad slow in some places, but if you take well to books with a more deliberate pace and a story revolving around characters trying to make it through their imperfect lives, then I would strongly recommend you check this one out.