I was very excited to accidentally stumble across a novel about a writer who fascinated me in my teens and twenties: Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Of course everyone loves The Little Prince but there was a time when I read his books about aviation as well — Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars are still on my bookshelf. I hadn’t thought much about Saint-Exupery in ages, though, until I picked up this novel at the bookstore and realized I absolutely had to read it right away.
This book is set in 1941-42, mostly in New York. France has fallen to the Nazis; Saint-Exupery is living in exile in America, desperate to fly again and to participate in the war against Germany. But in his early forties, bearing the scars and injuries of several plane crashes, the pioneering pilot who is also one of France’s most beloved writers is too much of a flight risk for anyone to want him in a plane again. His wife Consuela, with whom he had a famously tempestuous relationship, is also in New York with him, alternately seeking reconciliation and flaunting her lovers in her husband’s face. The fictional character whose first-person viewpoint narrates much of the novel is Mignonne Lachapelle, a young fashion designer trying to make her name in the New York fashion world. She becomes entangled with both Antoine and Consuela and their complicated marriage.
This novel tries very hard to capture not the flavour of a time and place, but also an enigmatic man who wrote about his own life but also managed to keep much of it private. I’m not sure the writer entirely succeeds — her Saint-Exupery was certainly appealing at times, but he didn’t feel entirely real. Switching points of view between Mignonne and Consuela was problematic for me because I didn’t really warm to either character, and I wasn’t deeply engrossed in Mignonne’s efforts to break into the fashion industry or her relationship with her temperamental boss. Still, Studio Saint-Ex is an ambitious novel and it did rekindle my long-ago interest in Antoine de Saint-Exupery, which can only be a good thing.