"Rouge" by Richard Kirshenbaum
Probably like most girls, I don't really have a particularly vivid memory of my first time experimenting with makeup.
Instead, my understanding of the event relies mainly on what my mother remembers. And, as she recounts it, I wasn’t what you would call a natural talent.
As far as she can remember, I first took my first awkward, clumsy, baby-giraffee-esque steps into makeup application as she slathered on her face for the day. I was playing around with a compact of almost exhausted blue eye shadow — which was still fashionable in the late eighties when I was coming of age and, I hear, is making a resurgence now, though I can’t for the fucking life of me understand why.
After ten minutes or so, I tugged on her pant leg, eager to show her how pretty I was. I had, rather confidently, rimmed my eyes deep blue, creating what must have looked like an anemic raccoon mask.
Though, fortunately, my skills have improved in the three decades since this initial experimentation, I'm still neither particularly good with, nor excessively interested in, makeup.
That being said, I absolutely recognize the power of cosmetics. Not only do they provide a way for women to transform their physical appearances, they also allow them to bolster their confidence enabling them to enter the world with less trepidation, more certain not just in their appearance, but also in the inevitability of their success.
As a child of 1982, I’ve rarely — read: never — thought about the genesis of make-up. Sure, I’ve seen lots of changes — the birth of the Gameboy, the death of the rotary phone — but makeup never seemed to me to be an industry rich in revolution. It’s always just been..there. Constantly and consistently advertised in magazines aimed at women of all ages and available at every drug store in an overwhelming contingent of varieties.
In the world built by author Richard Kirshenbaum, however, the development of makeup as a distinguishable, accessible category of products was dramatic and rivalry-filled.
In Rouge, readers are introduced to two distinctly different yet equally determined women.
The first, Josephine Herz, emigrated from Poland in the early 1920s, landing first in Australia before settling in America by way of Europe — not the most direct route, I know.
Though she brought little with her from Poland — as her family, certainly not well off, had almost nothing to give her before her departure — she did bring some moisturizer and naturally killer sales skills. And with only these things, she managed to almost single handedly not just revolutionize, but actually invent, the beauty industry.
Or, did she?
Unfortunately, because there is another half of this tale, it’s not so clear cut.
As luck would have it, at almost exactly the same time another woman, Constance Gardner, a Canadian, was setting up a life for herself in New York City. Though she didn’t know for sure what she wanted to do, she did know she wanted to break free from her humble roots and leave everything behind — even her name, which she would change to the incredibly similar yet inarguably bougier Constance Gardiner.
Like Josephine, Constance had a keen sense of capitalism and an eye for innovation. And, also like Josephine, she believed that all women should be able to — and would want to — feel more beautiful.
So she set off on her own path, certain that she had the tenacity necessary not just to develop cosmetic products, but to build a whole industry focused on beautification.
As the two women worked in parallel, not cooperatively but, instead, competitively, they both learned hard lessons about what it means to be a woman in the 30s and 40s, how difficult it is to transcend the social class into which you were born, and what you have to give up to truly achieve success.
Though this novel is a work of historical fiction, it read like fact.
Multiple times I questioned my categorization, venturing back to Amazon to make sure that this was, in fact, a speculative story about two fictional women and not an authentic recounting of actual events. This uncertainty on my part is a testament to the strength of these characters and the seeming authenticity of the world Kirshenbaum built.
As I continued to read, however, I became frustrated. The deeper I got into the novel, the more I began to feel that the narrative was insufficient. Much like the cosmetics that Josephine and Constance so fiercely raced to develop only impacted the outward appearance of the customers who flocked a purchase them, the story only skimmed the surface.
It left me wanting more.
It left me wanting depth.
I left me wanting to truly know who these women really were, outside of the office.
Clearly they were more than just their work. But, in the narrative presented, it didn’t feel that way.
Another challenge: too much tell, not enough show.
Let me back up and explain that in case you’ve never been subjected to a creative writing class.
One of the cardinal rules of narrative fiction — oft repeated by writing professors and all but tattooed on the arms of many passionate writers — is show, don't tell.
Don’t tell me how sad she is, describe the stoop of her shoulders, the moistness of her tear stained face, the shrill pitch of her cry as it finally, painfully, claws its way out of her throat.
While there was some show in this book, there was a literal shit-ton of tell.
Too often the author provided an annotated timeline-esque explanation of the events that occurred as these pioneering women both independently worked to give birth to an industry.
What I wanted were more detailed recountings of specifically poignant scenes that shaped the women's lives. And, while those were peppered in there, they weren’t profuse enough to satisfy me.
In fairness, the author was trying to cover a significant expanse of time, and telling instead of showing invariably allowed him to do so more expeditiously. But with so much tell and so little show I found it harder to really develop an attachment to these characters. This, in turn, made it more difficult to become truly invested in them, which is necessary to authentically care about their triumphs and tragedies.
Throughout the entire novel, tension built… slowly.
It didn’t rumble to a rolling boil but instead simmered.
Until it just… ended.
Ultimately, to me, it felt like we were building to a drama we just never reached.
Waiting for a payoff we never got.
Hoping for an epic confrontation that simply wasn’t to be.
Now, those things said, don’t let this trio of concerns leave you thinking there was nothing satisfying about this novel.
There absolutely was.
The author crafted a distinctive tale and presented it in a clean, creative format. Even if the view wasn’t as all-encompassing as I had hoped it would be, he provided a window into the lives of these brasher-than-was-fashionable women who unapologetically sought to build something larger than themselves.
Fans of historical fiction — and lovers of cosmetics — will absolutely eat this novel up.
From me, however, it earns a relatively tepid 3 out of 5 cocktails.
There is a reason this blog is Drink. Read. Repeat. Not Apply Makeup. Drink. Read. Repeat — namely, because my daily self-care pretty much begins and ends with a layer of foundation and ChapStick. How about you? Do you enjoy taking time fancy yourself up? Tell me about it in the comments, below.
Next up is, oddly, another beauty-themed novel. Want to see what it is? Follow me, here.