“The gift of a book can change the course of a child’s life,” writes Ania Szado in the acknowledgments of her recent historical novel Studio Saint-Ex. Szado is referring to The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which she received as a gift at age 11. This is when the seed of Studio Saint-Ex ostensibly was planted.
Ania Szado has researched the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry while he was writing The Little Prince in 1943 and has created his character and that of his estranged wife, Consuelo, based on widely known historical facts.
The Saint-Exupérys are in essence insta-characters, torn from the pages of history. Studio Saint-Ex is a fictionalization of their lives when they were living in New York as expats during the Nazi occupation of France.
Into the story line, Szado has inserted her own original character, 22-year-old Mignonne Lachapelle, an ambitious young fashion designer, who meets Antoine de Saint-Exupéry through the French community. As can be expected, the young woman falls in love with the legendary writer.
As history would have it, the couple had an open marriage, and this serves as Mignonne Lachapelle’s promising point of entry into their lives. At the same time, the ingenue is trying to forge a name for herself in the fashion industry, just as there is an upsurge in demand for high-fashion items in New York.
In her first job as a designer’s assistant, Mignonne is ordered to drum up business in the French community, where fashion trends are started. As the wife of an exalted figure among expats, Consuelo is considered influential and, consequently, a highly prized potential client. While Mignonne proposes items from her clothing line to Consuelo, she is also trying to seduce her husband. The wife is wise to this and plays along, continually turning the situation to her own advantage.
Although initially the story has great narrative force, it quickly loses momentum and becomes predictable. What saves the book is some particularly inspired writing by Ania Szado on the art of garment design.
As tempting as it may be to use historical figures as the basis of a novel, history still imposes some rather severe limitations, particularly on this storyline. Szado states in the book’s Afterword that some sources suggest that Saint-Exupéry’s extramarital relationships were “exclusively platonic.”
Consequently, the love triangle serves as little more than a tease to readers, reducing the focus of the novel to the aspirations of the young fashion designer. In the end, the story becomes completely implausible when the Mignonne manages to co-opt Saint-Exupéry’s work and catapult her own career.
Studio Saint-Ex is a forced fit. Ultimately, it is Saint-Exupery’s name and The Little Prince, among the best-selling books of all time, that are used to draw in readers, but the story is too farfetched and contrived to take seriously.
Heather Leighton is the Literary Editor of Rover Arts in Montreal.