Cover designed by Nflekto
A book review by Jeanie E. Warnock, PhD. (English Literature, University of Ottawa)
As editor and co-translator of High Heels for Six by Justine Frangouli-Argyris, I was drawn to the novel by the rich layering of its narrative and the psychological complexity of its characterizations. Alternately set in turbulent post-war Greece and the heart of cosmopolitan Montreal, the novel chronicles the lives of six schoolgirl friends, reunited after more than twenty years of separation. Boldly unfolding the success—and failure—of twentieth-century feminism in liberating women’s desire, Frangouli-Argyris’ novel explores the travails of the female spirit in post-modern society.
After a devastating family tragedy, seventeen year-old Julia is sent away from her home in the islands of Greece to distant relatives in Montreal, Canada. Tormented by memories of her dead father’s eyes, Julia turns her back on her past and refashions herself as the cherished wife of a wealthy French Canadian. Only her paintings, increasingly well-received on the world art scene, hint at the depths of the anguish that drive her, the dark rivers of blood that flow through the landscapes of her canvas—and her psyche. An unwilling immigrant who accepts the pain of exile in order to survive, Julia cannot forget her long-lost friends and makes a fateful decision to fulfill their childhood promise to meet again at the age of forty.
Modelling her novel on a real life tragedy from the past, Frangouli-Argyris sketches out the lives of the six women in a series of intertwining vignettes that join past to present and reality to desire. With dextrous strokes and a flair for the unexpected, she lays out the overlapping lives of the women: serious, scholarly Athena, who embraces communism, astrophysics and love with an equal fervour; earnest and dutiful Maria, finally stirred to an unexpected rebellion; bright, brittle Kate, whose glittering exterior conceals a shame she cannot speak; delicate ballerina Amy, who drowns a broken heart in oceans of fat; and wild Nancy, whose passionate love affairs cannot calm her restless spirit or the black depression that haunts her.
But it is in its depiction of the relationship between her two central characters, Julia and Nancy, that the novel achieves its greatest power, and Frangouli-Argyris presents a moving picture of the way the dead and the absent may continue to influence the lives of the living. Separated for twenty years, the spirits of the two friends have remained intertwined, their connection symbolized by a child’s pair of high heel shoes and their lives doubled like a mirror reflection.
Masterfully crafted, the novel brings the six friends together for a reunion that explores both the fulfillment and the betrayal of their childhood dreams. Central to this coming together are a series of paintings done by Julia herself, entitled “The Schoolgirls” and envisioning her adult friends as glamorous, successful twenty-first century women. As art encounters reality and past confronts present, the six friends are compelled to reassess their lives and the choices that have defined them. Have they achieved the freedom denied their mothers and become capable of acting on their desires? Or have the promises of feminism been a shifting and ultimately treacherous mirage?
The truth, Frangouli-Argyris suggests, ultimately rests in the pictures themselves and the capacity of love and art to transform human existence. While Julia’s idealized images of her long-lost school friends seem far off the mark, the pictures reveal the enduring essence of the love that has survived more than twenty year’s absence. It is the women’s loyalty to their schoolgirl friendship that has sustained them—and that finally gives Julia the courage to lay her past to rest and forgive her father.
---Jeanie E. Warnock, PhD. (English Literature, University of Ottawa)