Thurman does not so much ponder a fact as assess it in the round, like a work of sculpture. Almost unfailingly, it talks back ... Little escapes Thurman ... Part of what you appreciate in an essayist is her having accepted each of those supposedly fun assignments so that you won’t have to ... Thurman’s breadth of interests is great—she has written on pearls, on architecture, on hair products, on tofu—but with the new anthology she has also largely left the inanimate world behind. She writes less often of men ... Thurman too is equal parts cerebral and seductive, though foregoes the occasional splashes of vinegar. She pulverizes clods of research. She is wildly, often thrillingly allusive. The worldliness may be her trademark.
Her subjects are brought to life as complex, even cryptic characters. 'The mystery of how we become who we are' is her enduring preoccupation — an enigma whose sanctity she succeeds in preserving even as she unravels it ... She is a polyglot and a chameleon, precise, erudite, forthright. Her attention to detail is formidable ... Many of her essays conclude on an unexpected grace note, a shimmering that casts both new light and a subtle shade of doubt on what came before.
Ms. Thurman’s savvy profiles of couturiers help us understand that high fashion is about more than what the rich and famous wear to galas. Her interest runs deeper than just the clothes; she likes to delve under the skin of particularly innovative designers to try to understand how they have come to change and even define an era’s look. Particularly affecting are her tributes to Isabel Toledo, the Cuban-born designer of the lemongrass-yellow dress and coat Michelle Obama wore to her husband’s first inauguration in 2009, and Ann Lowe, the underappreciated black couturier who was slighted as 'a colored woman dressmaker' in media coverage of the lavish gown she designed for Jacqueline Bouvier’s 1953 wedding to John F. Kennedy. In all of these pieces Ms. Thurman makes it clear that, if 'read' properly, fashion, like literature and fine art, offers rich insights into our culture ... Organized thematically rather than chronologically, these essays are a lot to digest one after the other; for maximum enjoyment, I recommend cherry-picking. Fortunately, you can rest assured that there’s a point to whatever Ms. Thurman weighs in on ... Although prone to some overloaded sentences that could be easily divisible by two, Ms. Thurman is a sharp critic whose observations cut through to the essence of her subjects ... Quoting these essays is irresistible ... Ms. Thurman loves to share her passions and reshape the reader’s focus ... artful essays.
Evidently shaped by psychoanalytic thought, Thurman is romanced by the recurrence of things — the Freudian return. In her profiles, which are mostly of alluring women, haunting emerges as both theme and formal device...Sometimes the device is overworked. The tricky task of shaping the inchoate mess of a person’s life and work into a pleasing and digestible few thousand words — a task Thurman executes with élan — lends itself to a neatly looped structure. But this tidiness can strike a pat, whimsical or overly credulous note ... The Earhart profile, which was written in 2009, is one of the most disappointing in the book. Not aesthetically — it’s constructed with characteristic artfulness and insight — but because its subject, a mediocre pilot damned as 'a charismatic dilettante who lectured college girls about ambition yet never bothered to earn a degree,' emerges, miserably, as pure image, a substance-less confection of style. Why then focus on her, an empty celebrity, rather than dwelling longer on the misogyny and classism of the 1930s America that elevated her to such a position?...Generally, however, Thurman doesn’t seem much interested in her subjects as products of their time ... Instead, her appetitive eye for visual charisma in all its forms yields sumptuous descriptions of clothes, art, faces. She can also be deliciously droll ... the collection reveals Thurman’s suspectibility to both her subjects’ style and her own, usually gorgeous, prose. In terms of the former, several profiles made me hunger for less about the image of the woman in question, and more about her work ... The beauty of a sentence can occasionally blind Thurman to its veracity.
The section devoted to fashion designers...is especially well-researched and engaging and makes the art of couture more accessible to neophytes ... Because of the breadth of their topics, Thurman’s well-written culture essays in this collection will appeal to many readers, particularly those interested in fashion.