Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Elegant novel stars beloved author Saint-Exupery

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The Little Prince is one of the top-three bestselling books in the world, the most beloved story by legendary French pilot and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

It's a charming parable about a boy from a distant planet, Asteroid B-612, only as big as a house, who lands in the Sahara desert and tells his life story to a downed pilot whose plane has crashed there.

Written in 1942 while Saint-Exupery was in exile in New York City, The Little Prince provides the background for Toronto author Ania Szado's second novel, Studio Saint-Ex.

Studio Saint-Ex is an odd and restrained love story, mixing real and fictionalized characters interacting in the fashion, arts and French expat milieux of Second World War New York.

At its centre is a convoluted ménage-a-trois between Saint-Exupery, his demanding and voluptuous wife, Consuelo, and an ambitious young fashion designer, Mignonne Lachappelle, whose point of view controls parts of the story.

Saint-Exupery is a tormented soul, trying to write a followup to his two bestselling books, Night Flight (1931) and Wind, Sand and Stars (1939).

He's also lobbying the isolationist U.S. government in an attempt to convince them to get involved in the war to save France.

And he's trying to get back his right to fly in the French Air Force, even though he is too old and his body too broken from multiple plane crashes during his daring and dangerous career as a mail pilot in Africa and South America.

Although their marriage is a mere formality, Consuelo still wants Saint-Exupery's complete attention.

To get it, she will resort to almost anything, including openly flaunting an affair with Binty, a wealthy but dim-witted Lothario.

She also teams up with Mignonne, or Miggy, to stage a fashion show to launch the young woman's career even though she knows that Miggy is in love with her husband.

As a love story, Studio Saint-Ex is no Fifty Shades of Grey. Nor does it pretend to be.

It's a literary work, careful and restrained, almost chaste.

In fact, Studio Saint-Ex fits more comfortably into another genre, also fraught with controversy -- something called Real Person Fiction (RPF).

Examples of RPF are everywhere these days -- from trashy sexual fantasies about rock stars or movie celebrities to more "literary" examples by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates (Blonde, about Marilyn Monroe), Don Delillo (Libra, about Lee Harvey Oswald), and Michael Cunningham (The Hours, about Virginia Woolf).

Is it ethical to appropriate real people's lives for the sake of a good story?

Does it foreground a lack of imagination, an inability to create your own living characters?

Fortunately, Studio Saint-Ex answers the first question in the affirmative and the second in the negative.

It's a conscientious and imaginative work written with style and grace.

Its insider's look at the fashion industry of 1940s New York is reminiscent of Carol Shields' wonderful depictions of equally fascinating workers' worlds.

Like Szabo's award-winning 2004 debut novel, Beginning of Was, Studio Saint-Ex deals with women extricating themselves from boxes of loneliness and stifled ambitions.

It's not a flawless novel.

The alternation between Miggy's point of view and an omniscient third person is sometimes disconcerting.

And the insertion of episodes related to Expo 67, where Miggy is supposed to speak about Saint-Exupery (whose book Wind, Sand and Stars provided the fair with its theme) is incomplete and unsatisfying.

But Studio Saint-Ex is thoughtful, elegant and satisfying on many levels.

A retired film professor at the University of Manitoba, Gene Walz is a huge fan of The Little Prince and Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 J9

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