Lace Makers focuses on the trials and tribulations of Kate, a fashion designer, who’s fled to Ireland to escape the memories of a doomed relationship, her mother’s death from cancer, and the debacle of her most recent fashion show. She bounces around the country, finally finding herself in Glenmara. By chance, she befriends the ladies of the lace-making society — a set of married middle-aged women who get together once a week to make lace to sell at different local fairs.
Glenmara is a dying town. Its young people are wild (Aileen, one of the lace-makers, has a teenaged daughter who is on the pill >gasp!< and who drinks and argues with her mom) and its men cannot find work. Kate revitalizes the lace makers’ industry by suggesting that the lace-makers make fancy lingerie. Her venture is successful and she totally saves the day.
Lace Makers‘ greatest strength is its prose — Barbieri unfurls lyricism like the blanket setting for a picnic lunch, inviting you to really sit down and get to know the characters. She realizes her greatest success in poignant character portraits. The moment each of the lace makers dons her sexy lingerie (designed by Kate to be a reflection of that lace maker’s truest self) is a lovely snapshot of the various experiences framing women’s entrance into middle age. I found Oona’s story most compelling, as this survivor of breast cancer used the lingerie her friends made for her with love to in fact make love to herself, her survivor’s body, and her husband. These poignant moments highlight the vast potential stories like this have in documenting the power of women’s friendship. Plus, it’s always nice to read about older women rediscovering their sexuality. Their rediscovery of their sexual selves mirrors the revitilization of Irish village life — their lingerie and business acumen saves Glenmara from total decay.* It also disrupts the inevitability of gender roles. Colleen’s husband Finn, for example, starts cooking for her.
Unfortunately, there’s no plot. There’s just some stuff that happens. There’s no consistent antagonist. Kate’s ex never makes an appearance to disrupt her burgeoning relationship with the handsome Sullivan Deane. Kate’s agent never tries to steal or disrupt her new lingerie-based project. The lace makers latch onto Kate’s idea with enthusiasm, so she never has to persuade them she’s brilliant. The one lace maker who doesn’t, Aileen, is the one everyone already agrees is a bit of a downer. The major villain, Father Bryne, basically tells Kate he strongly disagrees with her newfangled ways IN PUBLIC >gasp!< which makes everyone in the town hate him. He’s actually pretty irrelevant from the get-go. Also — everyone universally agrees that Kate is the prettiest, nicest, most tragic young person Glenmara’s ever seen, which gets pretty dang annoying.*
I enjoyed Lace Makers — I liked learning about the idiosyncracies of each woman’s experiences of married life. I didn’t like the compulsory nature of couple-dom (I kind of wanted Kate to stay in Glenmara because she wanted to, not because of a man) but that’s standard for this genre. I just wish there had actually been a villain — the introduction of conflict would have made this lyrical gem into something really special.
* There’s a weird racial purity thing going on here, since one of the downers everyone mentions about Dublin is that there’re immigrants. Also, the priest who tries to embarass Kate is all mad because he might be replaced by an African. I’m not at all sure what the point of those asides were, but I do know that they, coupled with the fetishization of pale, translucent skin, squicked me out.
*Be warned — I took the Mary Sue test with Kate in mind, and she got a cartoonishly high score.