Patricia Volk: ‘Shocked’

Bling. Book bling. Have you ever seen book bling? Get your hands on Patricia Volk’s Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me, and you will be on my level, people. I’m including a close-up here, in the hopes of bestowing a little of my book bling on your day.

Shocked is about fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and Volk’s own fashionable mother, Audrey Volk, mainly referred to as Schiap and Audrey. If you have any interest in the designer, or fashion throughout the mid-twentieth century, you will be enamored with Volk’s view of her eccentric mother, and the fashion designer whom her mother had both nothing and everything in common with.

Patricia Volk has an exceedingly attractive way of sharing a story. She’s like this in life, too. She was my first professor in grad school, and for an MFA teacher, she had an uncharacteristically warm and inviting air. She made the experience less terrifying, which is not really possible, it’s like making the beach less sandy–but I swear, she did.

Volk’s book Stuffed, also a memoir, first introduced us to intriguing accounts of her mother: the makeup face that covered her real face, for instance (“My mother has painted a portrait of her face on top of her face. My mother is a painting”). In Shocked, we come to understand the awe Volk felt in her mother’s wake, but also her need to actively live her own life, out from under her mother’s control.

Early on in Shocked, we see (through her young daughter’s eyes) Audrey go through her whole makeup routine. In it, “She shakes her blondish hair out and fluffs her fingers through it. If it is Saturday, there’s a chance her nails haven’t chipped yet. She gets them done Fridays for the weekend and even though she is careful, sometimes they chip. When that happens, she blurts a woeful ‘Darn!’ and it breaks my heart.”

This scene perfectly captures the awe, and fear, and love in this mother-daughter relationship.

Each chapter is devoted to Audrey and Elsa. These two women are complex, in many ways alike and in others, opposites. Both were enamored with clothing, both had a hard time with female friendships, both were working women with expensive taste. But where Schiap was uninterested in motherhood, Audrey was ultimately caring and involved in her daughters lives. Schiap had no head for finance. Audrey invested her money until her dying day. Schiap was an ugly duckling, but admired for her artistry, while Audrey was celebrated for her beauty.

Truth: I had never heard of Elsa Schiaparelli before I read this book. She was a designer during a time when designers were actually doing things for the first time. She invented things. She is copied again and again by current designers. She was friends with Salvador Dalí and Picasso. She inspired and commissioned great works of art. (Don’t worry, the book has pictures at the end of each chapter to satisfy curiosity.) I felt like I was getting an art history lesson, while also reading an evocative memoir. It is a book I’ll read again.

Gigglers: I’m not going to seek out the newest hardcovers and tell you whether or not to buy them. And while not the Sunday Review, this Sunday blog will explore my brilliant and fascinating thoughts about books. Please use the comments section to share your own thoughts on this book, or whatever you’re reading.

Image by Lindsey Silken. Featured image from

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