Basic Black with Pearls

Basic Black with Pearls

New York Review of Books

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A brilliant, lost feminist classic that is equal parts domestic drama and international intrigue.

Shirley and Coenraad’s affair has been going on for decades, but her longing for him is as desperate as ever. She is a Toronto housewife; he works for an international organization known only as the Agency. Their rendezvous take place in Tangier, in Hong Kong, in Rome and are arranged by an intricate code based on notes slipped into issues of National Geographic. He recognizes her by her costume: a respectable black dress and string of pearls; his appearance, however, is changeable. But something has happened, the code has been discovered, and Coenraad sends Shirley (who prefers to be known as “Lola Montez”) to Toronto, the last place she wants to go. There the trail leads her through the sites of her impoverished immigrant childhood and sends her, finally, to her own house, where she discards her pearls and trades in her basic black for a dress of vibrant multicolored silk.

Helen Weinzweig published her first novel when she was fifty-eight. Basic Black with Pearls, her second, won the Toronto Book Award and has since come to be recognized as a feminist landmark. Here Weinzweig imbues the formal inventiveness of the nouveau roman with psychological poignancy and surprising humor to tell a story of simultaneous dissolution and discovery.


Helen Weinzweig (1915–2010) was born Helen Tenenbaum in Radom, Poland, and emigrated with her mother to Toronto when she was nine. As a teenager, she spent two years in an Ontario sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis; asked about the experience, she later recalled, “I read myself silly for two years.” In 1940, Helen married the Canadian composer John Weinzweig and for the next three decades dedicated herself to promoting his career while raising their two sons and organizing and working at a cooperative nursery school in Toronto. In 1968, her first short story, “Surprise!,” was published in Canadian Forum; no story or novel she wrote was ever rejected by a publisher. Her first novel, Passing Ceremony, was published in 1973, followed by Basic Black with Pearls in 1980, which won the City of Toronto Book Award. A short-story collection, A View from the Roof (1989), was nominated for the Governor General’s Award. A founding member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, Weinzweig also wrote stage and radio plays and taught at writers’ workshops in her later years.

Sarah Weinman is the editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense and the author of the forthcoming nonfiction book The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World. Weinman’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Guardian, and other publications. She lives in New York City.

Pub Date: 2018
Format: Paperback
Pages: 156 
Size: 5.00 x 8.00 inches

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