In the first half of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein battled for who would be the queen of the American cosmetics industry. Both rose from modest beginnings to cater to the high society of New York City and eventually rub elbows with royalty. Both would also engage in a rivalry that spiraled from purely professional to deeply personal.
I have little personal interest in the cosmetics industry; I came to the book out of a general interest in the history of the time. I soon found myself gripped by the intensity of both women’s ambitions and their need to outdo each other. Paul does an excellent job portraying both women as complex figures whose actions weren’t always pretty. Both are short-sighted, even blind to their personal faults. I felt as though I were reading a television series about them, in the best way.
My one complaint was that toward the end of the novel, it began to drag, partly because of the timeline. It’s difficult to write a book set even partially in the 1940s without World War II looming over everything because, historically, that’s exactly what happened. Narratively, it simply makes the last few chapters less focused, and the novel fumbles to its denouement rather than gliding into one.