Review – Rouge: A Novel of Beauty and Rivalry by Richard Kirshenbaum

Do you love espionage and spies?

Do you love historical dramas?

Do you love murder? Mystery? Mob stories?

And do you want it all while wearing the best mascara MAC has to offer?

Because holy moly this book had it all.

This week, I had the pleasure of reading Rouge: A Novel of Beauty and Rivalry by Richard Kirshenbaum. When I was contacted about reviewing this book, the jacket copy definitely caught my attention.

Rouge is a sexy, glamorous journey into the rivalry of the pioneers of powder, mascara and rouge. It gives readers a rare front row seat into the world of high society and business through the rivalry of two beauty industry icons (think Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden).

This fast-paced novel examines the lives, loves, and sacrifices of the visionaries who invented the modern cosmetics industry: Josiah Herzenstein, born in a Polish Jewish Shtlel, the entrepreneur who transforms herself into a global style icon and the richest woman in the world, Josephine Herz; Constance Gardiner, her rival, the ultimate society woman who invents the door-to-door business and its female workforce but whose deepest secret threatens everything; CeeCee Lopez, the bi-racial beauty and founder of the first African American woman’s hair relaxer business, who overcomes prejudice and heartbreak to become her community’s first female millionaire. 

The cast of characters is rounded out by Mickey Heron, a dashing, sexy ladies’ man whose cosmetics business is founded in a Hollywood brothel. All are bound in a struggle to be number one, doing anything to get there…including murder.

I know that this copy sounds exciting. I know that it warned me there would be murder and race issues and the business world. I also knew that cosmetics would be central to this plot. But somehow, I was not prepared for any of it.

For one, you must know that I am a sucker for anything set in the 30s and 40s. And I’m a sucker for anything set in Manahattan. The fact that this book was set in Manhattan during the 30s and 40s, while having spies and murder and dark themes, and wealth. It rang every one of my bells. This book felt like it was written just for me.

When I take a second to examine some of my favorite reads over the past few years, I think of The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which was set in Manhattan in the 30s and 40s and revolves around Katey Kontent’s involvement with the Manhattan Elite. And I think of Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, and the story that focuses on Mary, the daughter of a British Politician who volunteers for the war effort in London during WWII. I think of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo which starts in the 50s– a little later than the others–but has the same kind of spunk and silver-screen allure.

And Rouge fits in perfectly with these. It played out like a movie in my head as I read it. Kirshenbaum’s skill as a writer is apparent throughout this book. He is choosy with his descriptions, giving just enough description for your brain to fill in the rest. The descriptions of Josephine are sparse, barely more than vague hint of her appearance, and yet she appears fully-formed in my mind. Constance Gardiner is a living, breathing person, though we’re told very little outside of her trim waist and her blond hair. CeeCee Lopez is an living, breathing person to me. Kirshenbaum gives the reader just enough without giving away too much. And it’s glorious.

The stories of all three women featured in the novel are so complex and interesting. From Josephine’s humble beginnings in her uncle’s shop to conquering the cosmetic world of Australia, London, and eventually Manhattan, it was an incredible journey. To watch her deal with the struggles of antisemitism and a failing marriage, there was something real and raw about it. It was a reflection of the time, and it was masterfully done.

Reading of Constance Gardiner and her climb to success and her own battles with her sexual identity was touching. Constance was willing to do anything to stay at the top. She was willing to do whatever it took to be successful and, more importantly, wealthy. She was ruthless and clawed her way all the way to the top. And somehow Kirshenbaum wrote in such a way that I wound up feeling bad for this monstrously impressive businesswoman. Something about the brokenness of Constance Gardener made me want to root for her, even though I can think of few, if any, redeeming qualities.

CeeCee Lopez is the underdog of this story, used as a pawn in the middle of the cosmetic queens, dealing with the unacceptable conditions for people of color at the time (not that we’ve gotten much better today), and being used as a sexual object by more than one person. CeeCee Lopez is the character who truly captured my heart. She was not squeaky-clean in this entire endeavor, by any means, but she thrived despite the adversity she faced daily. She was scorned by the world, and it is apparent in the chapters that reflect her part of the narrative. She fought for her place in the world. She was strong and prideful. And full of questionable choices.

She was complex. She was endearing

Aside from the characters, Kirshenbaum is an incredible storyteller. He wove together chapters from the perspective of several complex characters. He intertwined storylines. He wrote a gripping story that was hard for me to put down. At 2:00 am, I was still flipping pages, mouth agape, gasping or laughing. This book drew on all of my emotions and sucked me in so incredibly quickly.

I seriously cannot recommend it enough. I am so glad that I was able to spend the weekend with this book and these characters. It has become a wonderful addition to my shelf of favorites.

Run, don’t walk, to your favorite bookstore and buy it today. Seriously. You will thank me later.

Plucky’s Rating?
5/5 Stars

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Rouge: A Novel of Beauty and Rivalry is available today, June 25

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