Piece of My Heart by Penelope Tree

In the 1960s, Penelope Tree was one of the supermodels of the day. Born in 1949, she was first photographed aged 13 by Diane Arbus, she was at Truman Capote’s ‘Black and White Ball’ in 1966, and was later photographed by Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon, before becoming David Bailey’s live-in muse in 1967. That relationship lasted until 1974, by which time she’d developed late-onset acne which effectively ended her modelling career. Now Penelope has written a novel, Piece of My Heart, with parts of it autofiction based on her own life. Listening to her on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour the other day, she told the interviewer how she’d always written a little – even in her teens sending her short stories to Truman Capote to critique (he was a friend of the family).

Piece of My Heart covers just over a decade, from 1962 to 1973. We begin with a prologue set in Kathmandu, August 1973, and Ari has arrived there having travelled overland with a mixed group of other travellers. She’s there as a journalist writing human interest pieces for her friend Julius’ magazine. But she can’t help reflecting back on her old life, when she was last in Kathmandu, modelling with Ramsey, she wishes her best friend Sunny was there with her, later she dreams of her childhood home…

And we’re taken back to autumn 1962, and Ari (short for Ariadne) is off to boarding school. It’s here that she meets Sunny from up north, both of them outsiders, they stick up for each other and soon become best friends. Taking Sunny home for half term, she is gobsmacked by Thurston Hall, Ari’s family ancestral pile, Ari’s old governess and nanny, cook, the chauffeur who’d picked them up. Ari’s parents, Maud and Papa call Sunny by her given name Christine, and break the news that nanny is to retire and they’ve remodelled the old nursery into a grown up salon for their girls. Ari is sad, for she spent more time growing up with nanny than with her parents, Maud being a politico in London, and Papa often working abroad. But she has Sunny to cheer her up.

So in the first two chapters the scene is largely set. We now need Ari to get discovered, and then to get the girls to London somehow. Enter Bill Ramsey, photographer, who is taking pre-wedding photos of her older sister. There’s a spark between them when he sees her watching, he tells her to look him up in London when she’s a bit older. They do get to London a couple of years later, after getting expelled from boarding school for truanting to be in the audience of Top of the Pops which was broadcast live in those days – so they were seen by everyone at school! Now sixteen, Sunny soon goes to London to pursue her dream of becoming a singer (and she will), and Ari has a lucky escape from being sent to finishing school in Switzerland, running off to join Sunny. Eventually hers and Bill Ramsey’s paths will cross again and she not only becomes his new muse, but they fall in love and she moves in. Soon, under Ramsey’s management, she’s blossoming as a model, but living and working with Ramsey isn’t easy…

Ramsey is obviously based on David Bailey, (which reminds me I have a copy of his memoir on my shelves). Ramsey is such a great character, full of life, you can’t not like him, love him even, but he’s yours only as long as your star burns bright. Ari is, of course, a posh girl, but she has talent and looks and just about enough confidence to pull it off. Sunny is the leveller, fearless and confident, a trail-blazer, but also getting Ari settled in the capital, she looks after her mate. Their careers take different paths, but their friendship endures.

Apart from creating these super characters, we get the insider’s view of the fashion scene from one who was there, which all makes for a compelling read. I’ve read many coming-of-age stories, including ones set in the 1960s before, but Tree’s novel always made me want to read on. I really cared about Ari and was so glad that it ends well for her after a couple of years of real difficulty in her relationship with Ramsey. This was such an enjoyable read – I loved it.

Source: Review copy – thank you! Moonflower hardback, 263 pages.

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