Friday, June 7, 2013

Shocked by Patricia Volk

Shocked:  My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me by Patricia Volk is a memoir told in snapshots, comparing and contrasting the memoirist’s mother’s life with her own and with that of Elsa Schiaparelli.  The connection between the author, her mother, and the iconic fashion designer is explained early in the book when Volk describes how she read Schiaparelli’s autobiography and realized, for the first time, that her mother’s way of living life, the rules by which she defined happiness and behavior, may not be the only way of existing in a complicated world. 

I should confess now that my appreciation of this memoir is highly subjective.  Volk describes a life that is different from my own but familiar.  She talks about walking from her upper west side apartment to the Woolworth’s on Broadway, the same one I lived near in my preadolescence.  She talks about a Manhattan I vaguely remember.  Women wearing gloves and furs.  Men in jackets.  Ladies who lunch.  Pearl necklaces and brooches.  I remember these things, peering into the display cases with the pearl gloves and pillbox hats.  However, I find Volk’s mother’s ideas about how a lady behaves beyond my purview.  Volk’s mother has a very precise understanding of what a girl should be and where she would find her happiness.  “A lady doesn’t raise her voice or wear white after Labor Day.”  That sort of thing. 

Mothers teach their daughters what they know and, when a daughter cannot or will not conform, there is bound to be conflict within this primary relationship.  For Volk, the catalyst for this conflict lies in her realizing that there is more than one way of being, something different from what her grandmother, mother, aunts, and her mother’s friends define as essential for a happy life.  And it is through Elsa Schiaparelli’s story, Patricia Volk finds a promise of writing her own life story separate from the one her mother would have her write for herself. 

I honestly enjoyed getting inside a life and lifestyle so unlike my own.  Volk manages to be honest about her relationship with her mother without vilifying.  Her mother is not an easy woman to understand or like but, somehow, you can’t help but appreciate her, recognizing that she was as much a victim of her circumstances.  Volk’s mother grew up in an era where some few women became doctors or lawyers but were not considered successful unless they had a husband and children.  And even then, their professional accomplishments were never as important as ensuring the husband was content.  So is it any wonder that this woman became a homemaker and sublimated her aspirations to be a helpmeet to her husband?  And is it a surprise that Volk would find inspiration in Schiaparelli, who refused to conform to anything?  I mean, think about it:  How many fashion designers know nothing about how to sew?  Schiaparelli was scandalous and her daring juxtaposes against the life Volk witnessed with her mother.   

While the choices both women make are highlighted, the author never defines what is the better path.  She clearly recognizes that there is no one right answer.  Rather, Volk evokes a quiet feminist truth—that power comes from choice and that women deserve to have the power to choose how they will define themselves and how they will live their lives.


Not profound.  Not overflowing with pathos.  Honest.  Gentle.  And when you finish reading, it feels like maybe you’ve made a friend.  Maybe not with Volk’s mother or Schiaparelli or even the author.  But some woman out there who didn’t embrace the same life as one’s self, knowing that’s okay, and that’s why you can both learn a lot from how someone else chooses to be.

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