"Lace" bids fair to be--or, to be more accurate, its publisher most devoutly prays that it will be--the schlock novel of the season. It's just what the readers of Jacqueline Susann and Judith Krantz adore: a chic designer handbag with a dirty book inside--a "woman's book" as the term is now defined in an age that lets it all, or at least most of it, hang out.
As such enterprises go, "Lace" is a reasonably professional piece of work. By comparison with Susann and Krantz, Shirley Conran is a competent writer, even if that is a somewhat limited compliment; she knows the cliche's of the genre and knows when to put them to work, though the description of the book in the publisher's catalogue as "awesomely readable" is, perhaps, a trifle hyperbolic. Conran is familiar with the ingredients of the schlock novel of the 1980s and she is not in the least embarrassed about heaving them all into the pot, especially those having to do with sexual versions and perversions.
The secret of success in the schlock genre is to formulate precisely the right mix of soft-core sex and hard-core glamor. This may sound easy, but the aisles of the nation's bookstores are strewn with the corpses of novels that tried and failed. "Lace," it says here, is not going to fall among these. It is a work of such transparent and exquisite cynicism that its triumphant march to the upper reaches of the best-seller lists seems divinely ordained.
To the extent that "Lace" has a plot, it has to do with a voluptuous and vulpine young thing named Lili, who has no last name but is most certainly not the Lili of "Hi Lili! Hi Lili! Hi lo!" This Lili, "whose name had been linked to more celebrities than that of any other woman," is an orphan waif who worked her way through the underworld of pornography and now is an international goddess of the silver screen. She has the world in the palm of her hand, and yet . . . and yet: "There's a part of me that's missing and I don't even know what part it is."
She decides to find out. To her suite at the Plaza in New York she lures, by various ruses, four women now in their late forties: Kate, journalist and best-selling author; Pagan, wife of an eminent scientist; Judy, editor and publicist extraordinaire; Maxine, tough-minded businesswoman. And to them she poses one of the more momentous questions in American fiction: "Which one of you bitches is my mother?"
Finding the answer to that question is--need it be said?--the fragile thread upon which the manifold fascinations of "Lace" are hung. The identity of the mother is abundantly obvious within 50 pages, but that is scarcely the point. What matters are the juicy sex scenes that Conran provides--lesbianism, of course, and transvestitism, and just about every other ism known to man and (yes) beast--but even more than that, the glimpses she provides into the inaccessible, mysterious, hopelessly alluring world of global glamor.
This, when you get right down to it, is what it's all about. A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl's best friend: The real fun of schlock fiction is the entree it gives the reader into that heavenly world populated by people with names like Dior, Onassis, Quant, Redford, Donahue--the world of high fashion, big money, fast action and momentous stakes, the world summoned up by a single word . . . Concorde.
Shirley Conran does not miss, by my count, a single trick. She gives us war in the Middle East and an amorous ruler who just might be the shah of Iran; she gives us yachts in the Mediterranean and a shipping magnate who just might be Onassis; why, she even gives us interior design on Bond Street and a "ruthlessly uncompromising" designer who just might be . . . her very own former husband, Terence Conran, described on the dust jacket as an "international multimillionaire," which pretty much says it all. And she gives us a vision of the good life that is likely to set the curlers spinning in chateaux de coiffure from Scarsdale to Santa Barbara:
"The wall opposite consisted entirely of panels of smoked-mirror glass, each concealing liquor, games, TV, stereo, projector or other valuable clutter. One complete side of the huge room was a sheet of sliding glass that led onto a leafy terrace, beyond which stretched a sumptuous treetop vista of Central Park. Opposite the vast window was a 50-foot run of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lacquered Chinese red. Not all the shelves contained books; Kate's collection of antique snuff boxes stood on one; another held a small collection of terra-cotta ancient Greek votive statuettes and other shelves held small, charming objects--a 17th-century bronze of a man wrestling with a bull by Garnier, a tiny yellow Meissen patch-box that had once belonged to Madame de Pompadour."
Conran knows all the names, brand and otherwise, and she certainly knows where and when to drop them. "Lace" doesn't sink under the weight of them, it soars--right up into the same stratosphere where you'll find "Valley of the Dolls" and "Scruples." If that isn't fast company, I don't know what is.