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books you should have read by now: lace

Before there was 50 Shades of Grey, there was Lace. Not that I’ve read 50 Shades (an admission which ironically undermines my status as a reviewer), but you think BDSM is shocking? Shirley Conran, author of Lace, describes it as ‘baby porn’. She shocked everyone with Lace, it’s frank discussions and depictions of sex (from the disappointing, to the orgasmic, to the incestuous), abortion, and lies, lots of lies. It totally shocked audiences in the 80s. Of course, audiences now are pretty used to being shocked.

That leads me to the thing which is really radical about Lace. Female friendship. The kind that isn’t eroded by drugs and celebrity as in The Valley of the Dolls (which is nonetheless a great book), or based on superficial brunch discussions about men and shoes as in Sex and the City, or is constantly under threat by bitchy backstabbing as is pretty much the case in every single teen movie ever. No, the women in this book actually like each other, are there for each other, and even encourage each other to reach new heights in their successful careers.

The terrain of healthy, deep female friendship has gone largely unexplored in books and on TV. If nothing else, Lace celebrates what can be achieved if you take your relationships beyond the frienemies zone.

Lace has four main characters – Kate, Judy, Pagan, and Maxine. They first meet in a Swiss finishing school and the book follows their lives. The finishing school part of the book is easily the best. In subsequent parts it was sometimes a little difficult to keep track of who was who and the exact chronology of the story. I also felt that it might have been nice to have some more direct interaction between the main characters post-finishing school, and perhaps more flashbacks and reflections on behalf of the characters, but it all comes together nicely in the end.

The reason the reader keeps reading though, ultimately, is because Conran leaves us hanging at the introduction. It’s a fast forward into the future where the four woman are called to meet a famous movie star, Lili. After they have gathered together Lili asks, ‘Which one of you bitches is my mother?’ We have to trace all the way from finishing school onwards to find out.

Like The Valley of the Dolls, Lace is often given the ‘classic trash’ label. Presumably it’s in part because the book is about female relationships, and in part because it’s very easy to read (at 751 pages, I should hope so!). I don’t think Conran’s writing is the best ever. Certainly, you might win pop culture points for reading the book, but when it comes to Literary Merit, well, who even cares? It’s summer.

Lace is published by Canongate.

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