Weekend Reading:  “The Women in Black” by Madeleine St. John

I am enthralled by The Women in Black.

You may or may not have heard of Madeleine St. John, an Australian writer whose novel The Essence of Things was shortlisted for  the Booker Prize in 1997.  I loved it, but never heard of St. John again.

Simon & Schuster has recently reissued St. John’s charming first novel, The Women in Black.  I gobbled up this brilliant comedy about four employees in the Ladies’ Frocks Department of Goode’s, a department store in Sydney in the 1950s.  They are required to wear unattractive black uniforms. 

St. Madeleine writes:

These black frocks were worn through the week and dry-cleaned by Goode’s over the weekend ready to start another week’s work on Monday morning, and smelt peculiar. Not nasty, but different—simply the result of the smell of frequent dry-cleaning, mingled with the scent of cheap talcum powder and sweat. Every Goode’s assistant had this smell while she was wearing her black frock.

Set during the busy Christmas season, when they are run off their feet, a chain of events transforms them. First there is lonely Patty Williams, “a little, thin, straw-colored woman with a worn-out face and a stiff-looking permanent wave,” whose cruel  husband Frank  is usually drunk, criticizes her cooking, and rarely has sex with her. She buys a sexy nightgown at Goode’s (with her employee discount, of course), and accidentally entices Frank into bed. Then he disappears  She grieves, becomes angry, and finally takes charge of her life.

In contrast, Fay Baines, in her late twenties, is buxom, beautiful, and single.  At Goodes, they assume she is free and happy, and they jealously speculate about her wild life.  In reality, Fay spends a lot of time crying because she is tired of parties, and never meets men who consider marriage.   St. John explains:

The men she saw these days were a rag tag and bobtail collection of faces from her livelier past, blind dates organised by her friend Myra Parker (comrade and mentor since Fay’s nightclub days), and men whom she met at the parties to which she was taken by Myra, or by the rag tag and bobtail.

And when Fay refuses to have sex with them, they insult her and call her a bitch, which leads to more crying.

Magda, a sophisticated Slovenian immigrant who met her husband in a refugee camp, is the most generous and well-adjusted of the group.  Her colleagues are intimidated, because Magda manages the Model Gowns department, which sells one-of-a-kind designer gowns. And they are annoyed when they learn they must share the new temp with Magda: “…they were going to have Magda slithering out of her pink cave and sliding over to Ladies’ Cocktail and pinching that temp away from them…”  

The temp worker, Lesley Miles, who tells them her name is Lisa, which seems more romantic to her, is just out of school and hopes to go to the university. She reads Anna Karenina on her break.  Through Magda’s kindness, she learns about clothes and makeup and is transformed from an ugly duckling into a swan. Lisa lends Anna Karenina to Fay, who is surprised that reading novels makes the time go faster  And Magda invites Fay to a party where charming immigrants don’t stereotype her as a slut.  

Yes, it’s all about happy endings–thank God!  We all love light books, especially when they’re as well-written as this  Happy Weekend!  And enjoy The Women in Black.

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