Like J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements, reviewed here, Kate Beaufoy’s Liberty Silk is a tale of different eras and generations connected by a single object–in this case, a beautiful, shimmering, colourful silk dress from Liberty of London. Bought in 1919 by Jessie, a young lady of patrician English background who marries a penniless artist and spends her honeymoon deliriously happy in the summery South of France, it’s eventually inherited by Baba, born Lisa, who is a starlet with an empty life in Hollywood in the 1940s, and finally by Cat, a rebellious young photographer in the mid-1960s. Naturally, these women are connected, and it’s fairly clear how from the outset. The main mystery of the novel is how much these women will have to sacrifice to discover and fulfil their dreams, and the darkness and uncertainty that lies beneath luxury and leisure.
The novel switches fairly regularly between narratives, and between Los Angeles, the South of France, and Ireland. It brings in famous people from films and art–the Scott Fitzgeralds, David Niven–to influence the ladies’ lives, which is interesting in some cases; Zelda Fitzgerald makes more than a cameo appearance, and she’s sketched with shadowy delicacy. The art world of France in the 1920s, and the corrupt, careless and exploitative relationships between artists and their muses is also interesting, even if it’s somewhat reminiscent of Judith Krantz’s Mistral’s Daughter, also a tale of art and generations of women. Atmosphere is well constructed–clothes, the seaside and nature, food, music etc., and the women are generally sympathetic, if naive, but the secondary characters fare less well–they seem to be randomly killed off whenever the author can’t decide what to do with them any more. There is potential for more drama and conflict between the women themselves than is given, and there are, of course, unlikely coincidences.
Overall, this novel is decent summer beach fare, despite the fact that it remains curiously slippery rather than gripping–it’s a hard one to sink into, more one to splash around in.
There ruminating ‘neath some pleasant bush,
On sweet silk grass I stretch me at mine ease,
Where I can pillow on the yielding rush;
And, acting as I please,
Drop into pleasant dreams; or musing lie,
Mark the wind-shaken trees,
And cloud-betravelled sky. (John Clare, “Summer Images”)