Hexbreaker by Mike Baron and Bill Reinhold
Susanna Clarke x High Fantasy

Underground Reading: The Beauty Makers by N.B. Lamont

The Beauty Makers The Beauty Makers by N.B. Lamont was first published as a Cassell hardback in 1958, then reprinted in paperback in 1959 and 1961 (Panther edition shown here). The book is an intimate portrait of the fictional House of Vermeyer - a globe-spanning manufacturer of luxurious cosmetics.

There are two major plot-threads to The Beauty Maker.

The first, and most predictable, is the developing relationship between Paul Vandenberg, the company's new president, and Sigrid "Ziggie" Anderson, the private secretary of one of his vice-presidents. The two engage in a torrid 'will-they/won't-they' flirtation that eventually culminates in a surprisingly well-grounded relationship and unsurprisingly tragic ending.

The second plot that runs through the book involves Vandenberg's relationship with the House of Vermeyer as a whole.

A ruthless businessman - a fore-runner to day's generation of efficiency consultants - Vandenberg encounters resistance from every nook and cranny of the ponderous Vermeyer corporation. The company's 'face' and head of training, Gloria Vernon, resents Vandenberg for replacing her dead lover. The powerful, entrenched VP, Harry Sarnoff, refuses to relinquish the tiniest piece of his authority. Even the lead chemist, brewing the latest nail polish, worries that Vanderberg is 'out to get him'.

Vandenberg, although accomplished, moves through his work with Zenlike focus. He's dying of some mysterious heart/ulcer/stress ailment, which, combined with a natural distaste for 'clutter', has driven him to do everything as swiftly and efficiently as possible. Despite the fifty years since The Beauty Makers' publication, many of the office scenes are still relevant today. With its introduction to focus groups, product recalls, advertising campaigns and branded content, the book does a surprisingly solid job of providing marketing fundamentals that are still in use today.

Although Vandenberg is the book's protagonist, enough of the House of Vermeyer's sprawling cast is involved in the narrative to give the reader multiple points of view. The reader sees the impact of Vandenberg's actions from every perspective. Although Paul's work is generally 'right', his work is clouded by his inability to clearly communicate his motivation. His ultimate nemesis turns out to be the faceless, formless rumor mill. Even as Vandenberg saves one job, or corrects one wrong, his actions are mulled, misinterpreted by hundreds of employees.

Vandenberg's antithesis in this respect is Harry Sarnoff, the Vice-President. One of the original founders of the company, Sarnoff's job has always been to solve problems - from the very little to the very big. Like Vandenberg, Harry Sarnoff is a success, surrounded by the trappings of wealth, but vaguely discontent by them. Also like Vandenberg, Sarnoff will use any means necessary to solve a problem - and, although he's less of an overtly 'honorable' man than Paul, Harry is still extremely loyal to his friends and to the company. However, the main difference between the two is in simple office politics. Sarnoff is a Machiavellian machine, cultivating alliances, manipulating factions and "making real friends". Vandenberg tries to stay above the office fray - occasionally diving down to make personal connections. This disconnect, eventually, proves his undoing.

Vandenberg and Sarnoff are united by one other unusual factor - they're both Jewish. Despite being successful businessmen, the author doesn't pander to antisemitism or to stereotype, and does a surprisingly incisive job of portraying a pair of casually religious, middle-aged, New York Jews. Vandenberg has a brief conversation about religion with Ziggie in the midst of their romance. He asks her if his religion matters to her. She responds, baffled with a query of 'why should it?'. Vandenberg realizes that's the simple truth of the matter, and the issue is dropped.

This isn't the only instance in which Ziggie Anderson shows her wisdom. On several occasions, she shows that she's the only intellectual equal of Vandenberg, and on several others, she proves that she's capable of doing Sarnoff's work for him.  Ultimately, The Beauty Makersis as sexist and confining as any other book in the era. Ziggie, Gloria and the other women of the Vermeyer company are all trying to claw their way up to the few (non-summit) positions available to women. Although they're all keen to make their own money and live some with independence, their ultimate goal is still to marry well (and young) and quit the corporate world.

Although The Beauty Makers tempts Ziggie - and the reader - with an optimistic and romantic resolution, Lamont adds a last-minute plot twist that elevates the book far above its 'office romance' peers. Ultimately, this is not a book about the success of idealism or the triumph of the romantic spirit. It is a chronicle on the grim necessity struggling along, surviving, and succeeding by determination, rather than holding out for the whims of fate. Not necessarily uplifting fiction, but one with a clear message.

Neither 'office romance' nor 'business thriller', The Beauty Makers combines the best aspects of both genres while spinning a story uniquely its own. The Beauty Makers is a surprisingly convoluted, intricate book, with a complexity and depth of message well above its peers.