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By Alex Carrigan
It’s easy to dismiss punk as dirty and rebellious for the sake of rebelliousness, but there’s a real glamour and craft to the look and the lifestyle that’s easy to miss if one ignores the work behind it. At the same time, glamour, while more socially-acceptable, is able to hide its underlying murkiness with clean hems and crisp, neutral tones, presenting an image that can be meticulous, but also just as frustrated and restricted as those punks it scoffs at. Marrying punk and glamour is the sort of thing that can expose a real severity and beauty of humanity that can expose just how wide a person’s emotional spectrum can be.
This sort of marriage is something that can be found in the debut novel of Tea Hacic-Vlahovic. Life of the Party is a picaresque romp through the fashion world of Milan as told through the eyes of Mia, an American expat and college student, who gets wrapped up into the world of party drugs, casual hookups, and artifice that only looks slightly more appealing than the world she previously left. The novel follows Mia as she works for an erratic fashion designer, deals with a temperamental boyfriend, and tries to maintain herself in this world.
Hacic-Vlahovic’s protagonist makes her view of Milan and the world she exists in quite plain and critically in the opening paragraph of the novel:
“Milan shouldn’t be seen during the day. It’s too ugly and not in a cool way. It’s not a grungy music video or a teenage runaway. It’s a woman waking up hung-over, looking in a mirror, and screaming because she lost all her collagen overnight.”
Rather than being a tale of an ingenue being corrupted by the grim underbelly of the fashion world, Mia enters the story already disillusioned and critical of Milan and the people around her. She complains about being overworked by her boss, being treated poorly by her married boyfriend, and other general frustrations that come about from her expat life. The narrative makes it clear that this was who Mia was before she arrived in Italy. She’s just now drinking water without ice and speaking Italian to virtually everyone she encounters. But what makes this novel interesting is that it doesn’t dwell on the fact that Mia hates her life and the artifice surrounding it, nor does it suggest that this is a hell she can’t escape from. If anything, there are times where it becomes clear that this is the kind of world Mia can thrive in.
As gross and exploitative as the setting can feel, Hacic-Vlahovic’s protagonist shows how easy it is to actually enjoy and get swept away by such a world. Mia may find fault with those around her, but she still returns to them because she likes the parties, the drugs, the exposure, and the opportunities afforded from knowing, being used by, and using these same people. She’s not blind to the fact that she could be a hypocrite or just another grim facet of this frosting-covered mud pie that is Milan in the late 00’s, but the narrative doesn’t invite the reader to judge Mia for her actions. It asks you to sit behind her as she drives a Vespa off a cliff.
Of course, the story isn’t all about drugs, sex, and Lady Gaga. It’s about where Mia’s limits are, and where Mia’s strengths do lie. It would be easy to see her as another Byronic anti-heroine, but while Mia isn’t the kind of person who can give this life up entirely, she can at least show a modicum of self-respect and personal autonomy. Her life isn’t desirable once you get deep into the details, but the kind of strength and certainty she carries makes her a fascinating character and the kind of individual who could carry an entire series of stories in different settings. Life of the Party could just be the early-20’s-in-Milan part of Mia’s story, the first of a five-part book series set in fashion capitals all over the world. A sort of feminine, punk Antoine Doinel, if you will.
Overall, Life of the Party is a read that shows the highs and lows of the punk and fashion world in an entertaining and enrapturing read. The reader wants to see where Mia ends up next, what sort of people she’ll encounter, but more importantly, they want to see what Mia herself will do and say. Hacic-Vlahovic’s novel is so well-written and constructed, that even though some moments may feel a bit repetitive, the enigmatic woman at the center of this tale draws the reader in and leads them to wanting to see more from her, even if it’s to know what the next party is like.
Life of the Party is now available for pre-order from Clash Books.
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