2.5 out of 5: In this coming-of-age novel, young Vivian Kovacs, a Hungarian immigrant living with her parents in London in the 1970’s, struggles to escape her sheltered existence. Believing the outside world to be unsafe, Vivian’s parents “chose to be mice-people,” planning their lives around the TV schedule and leaving their flat only when absolutely required. Vivian rejects her parents’ fear, engages with the world, and invents a colorful identity for herself through the eclectic clothes she wears. As if the symbolism isn’t already apparent, Vivian explains:
The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in. … A million imperfections mar us. … So the most you can do is put on a new dress, a different tie.Most of Vivian’s story is told through flashbacks and stories-within-stories. This nesting of narratives, while structurally impressive, imposes a significant distance between the reader and the emotional core of the story. This backward-looking construct has a muting effect on the action, as if everything happens under cover of a deep fog.
This character-driven novel lacks a protagonist strong enough to sustain the momentum. On the one hand, Vivian is a mousy introvert, but, on the other hand, she develops a love for stylish clothes and marries a “self-confident” and “rather shallow” man who resembles a “young English lord in a white open-neck shirt.” These inconsistencies never coalesce into a coherent identity. Nevertheless, Grant’s undeniable skill as a writer results in a mildly enjoyable book, one that would’ve been terrible in less masterful hands.