Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: The Red Leather Diary

The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal by Lily Koppel
3 stars

Reasons for reading: sounded really interesting; Colourful Reading Challenge

Description: "For more than half a century, the red leather diary languished inside a steamer trunk. Rescued from a Dumpster on Manhattan's Upper West Side, it found its way to Lily Koppel, a young writer, who opened its tarnished brass lock and journeyed into an enthralling past. The diary painted a breathtaking portrait of a bygone New York—of glamorous nights at El Morocco and elegant teas at Schrafft's during the 1920s and '30s—and of the headstrong, endearing teenager who filled its pages with her hopes, heartaches, and vivid recollections. Intrigued, Koppel followed her only clue, a frontispiece inscription, to its now ninety-year-old owner, Florence Wolfson, and was enchanted as Florence, reunited with her diary, rediscovered a lost younger self burning with artistic fervor."

First line: "Once upon a time the diary had a tiny key."

Favourite part: It actually comes near the beginning, when Lily finds the trunks in the Dumpster. There's a wonderful description of the hotel and ocean liner labels:

Each label was a miniature painting, a dreamy portal into a faraway destination. Elephants paraded past exotic geishas twirling parasols. Pink palms swayed, hypnotizing passengers aboard the Orient and Round the World Dollar Steamship Line. Flappers frolicked. . . An orange ship sailed through a fuschia pagoda. Two women sat under an umbrella in Cannes. Giraffes kicked off the Around Africa Cruise. . .
I'd love to have a collage like that on my wall!
Other thoughts: I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the book. Most of the book is Lily recreating the events described in the diary (which actually only had room for a few lines per day) in almost novel format. She's obviously done lots of interviews and research, but I almost would have just preferred the diary.
And Florence was quite the young woman! I didn't quite know what to think of her. She was constantly having love affairs with girls/women and a few boys/men, from age 14. "In those days it was fashionable for girls to have relationships. Like Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West." explains 90 year-old Florence. But gosh, it seemed like rather a lot of sex for someone so young during what we think of as a "purer" time (I think we're wrong!). And she comes off as a bit of a poor little rich girl, even though her parents were well-off but not very wealthy. She wanted to be a writer, an artist, a musician. . . in her later teens she held literary/philosophical salons in her parents' apartment. I found myself thinking it must've been nice to have so much time on one's hands and so little to worry about. But the ways she was able to fill that time, from age 14, in New York City is amazing - teas, operas, plays, museums, horseback riding in Central Park. . . We'll never see that again.
I think I might have been happier with a book just about New York during this period, which I find fascinating. But Koppel clearly loves the city and its history, and that comes through well. Apparently it inspired her to write some articles about New York during the time and find places that still existed (like the last typewriter salesman), which I wouldn't mind reading. And Florence is certainly an exciting tour guide for the period!

1 comment:

Becca said...

Great review!

I liked the descriptions of the labels, too. I could picture them in my head, which is exactly what you want.

I thought this would be an epistolary novel since it is called The Red Leather Diary. And you would have preferred it to be. Interesting that it is not.