An intriguing novel set in 1920s Paris, The Shoe Queen chronicles a fairly tortured and tumultuous period in the life of an English woman of noble birth, Genevieve Shelby King.
A self confessed shoe-a-holic, her collection has 523 pairs in it, all lovingly stored in their original boxes and kept in a dedicated shoe room in the Parisian apartment she shares with her wealthy Boston-born industrialist husband, Robert. Many have been hand-made, and even more have never been worn.
Those that are worn are prey to a range of calamities which render them ruined through accidents such as having red wine spilled on them, mud splashed onto them from a passing carriage, and most bizarrely, by a kitten whose feet have been dipped in blue paint running over them (well, it was 1920s Paris where experimental performing art performed by candlelight at midnight on sinking barges on the Siene was de rigueur!). I can’t recall the telling of the wearing of a single pair of shoes that doesn’t have some accident befall those expensive items (it may be worth reading the book simply to note the many mishaps Genevieve’s shoes meet with).
Genevieve falls in love with a pair of exquisite shoes a friendly social rival, Violet de Fremont, is wearing, and discovers they have been handmade by a relatively unknown but genius shoe maker, Paolo Zachari. Who, maddeningly, initially refuses to even see her, let alone agree to make her a pair of his extraordinary, one-in-a-million pair of shoes.
Well, they aren’t really shoes. They are artwork displayed on one’s feet.
(As a scintillating side note, the artistic shoemaker in the novel, Paolo Zachari, is based on a real life person from the early 1900s, Pietro Yanturni, who had a shop off the Place Vendome with a bold sign stating: Pietro Yanturni: World’s Most Expensive Shoes. He created shoes that would be absolutely perfect for this clients, who, in a fascinating twist of customer service, had no say in how the shoes would look, what materials would be used or even when the shoes would be read. Some clients waited for years for their Yanturni’s).
And so the story starts. Genevieve’s obsession with shoes is beautifully brought to life throughout the book, taking up just the right amount of space in a book that isn’t really about shoes, or even the love of shoes, but a complex woman, seeking her own authentic path, who happens to love shoes.
This isn’t high literature and it won’t challenge you in too many intellectual ways, but I found it a delightful novel with some intriguing ideas that got me thinking about shopping, shoes and our lives.
Outward signs of a lived life
From page 276:
“She began collecting shoes, ordered from catalogues and delivered from Harrods. Shoes were beautiful, sensual objects. They provoked, subtly- drawing attention to the delicate arch, the slender ankle, and prompting a glimpse farther up the leg. Shoes connected a person to their world – you walked in them, you danced in them. Without your shoes, you could barely step out of the house. The marks on their soles were the outward signs of a lived life.
Genevieve’s shoes were unworn.”
I found this an interesting idea – that shoes are an outward sign of a lived life. And that to have so many shoes, as this fictional character has, that remain unworn signifies a life unlived.
I wonder if this is true – that worn shoes signify a life lived? And the converse, that unworn shoes signify a life unlived? And if it is true, I wonder what would my shoes would say about how lived my life is?
And I wonder if we can apply this to our clothing as well. I’ve met so many women who talk about wardrobes filled with clothing unworn, tags still attached. How lived are the lives of those women, if there is no ‘outward sign’ (of clothing clearly worn, and perhaps even loved or at least enjoyed) to see?
What an interesting idea to ponder!
Standing in for a life
From page 317:
“She began to gnaw on an expensively manicured nail. “There’s a whole room of shoes at my apartment, Paolo. Floor to ceiling. They’ve been my passion. I hold them close to my heart. Every box in that room contains an unfulfilled desire, a dream, a fantasy.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “I love my shoe collection, but I’ve let it stand in for a life. I’m not going to do that anymore”.
I could relate to the idea of letting shoes stand in for a life. In a hybrid documentary I was part of for Australia’s premiere film school (you can read about my story of filming that documentary in this three-part post starting here) , I talked about how I have used clothing to cover up all that lies beneath – the unwanted emotions, the pain, the frustration.
Any passion taken too far can become unhealthy. And for those of us who have overshopoped, the acquisition of more clothing, more handbags, more jewellery, more shoes, has become unhealthy. We have substituted living our lives fully and richly, for the buying of more and more stuff.
And like the protagonist in The Shoe Queen, we too have the choice not to do that anymore. We have the choice to fill our days, our minutes, our lives up with activities that make our hearts sing, with spending time with people we love, and with making a contribution that befits our talents.
And that approach makes for a life well and richly lived. It’s an approach that does not require the buying of more and more shoes, or more and more anything.
I’d much sooner be the queen of my own life, than the queen of shoes. Wouldn’t you?