On the Beach, Under a Tiffany-Blue Sky
By JANET MASLIN
There are two unorthodox things about this summer’s most adorable chick-lit book: It’s a work of nonfiction, and it’s written by a guy. Michael Tonello’s “Bringing Home the Birkin,” the story of one man’s relentless assault on the world’s horsiest luxury-goods label, may break the mold a bit, but it does a fine job of fulfilling this genre’s basic requirements. It’s smart. It’s fizzy. It’s amusingly snarky, with attitude to burn. The genre’s four basic food groups are ambition, romance, travel and partying, and Mr. Tonello dishily delivers (he adores alliteration) them all.
Even better, when its Tiffany-blue dust jacket is removed, “Bringing Home the Birkin” looks as if it’s bound in Hermès crocodile. This is an expert feat of one-upmanship, since the most merchandise-minded beach books are hellbent on putting something either flauntable or edible on their covers.
Trumping the competition’s graphics took ingenuity. After all, the flashiest beach book of the moment, Lauren Weisberger’s “Chasing Harry Winston,” has cover art depicting diamond rings stacked on the super-high spike heel of an inexplicably hairy shoe. (Something very bad appears to have happened to a white pony.) That is the season’s high-water mark for either wretched excess or fabulousness, depending on your point of view. But Mr. Tonello’s antic memoir takes a more interesting view of consumer culture. And it has the rare advantage of being as much fun to read as it is to tote around.
His bright story idea ......But Mr. Tonello found a canny way to capitalize on the cravings that Ms. Weisberger takes seriously. After pluckily deciding to change his life and move to glamorous Barcelona (a fluffy premise if ever there was one), he needed to make a living. And he noticed that Hermès merchandise, though a trifle steep in stores ($295 for a pair of men’s cotton boxers), could be sold for even crazier sums on eBay. He then became obsessed with digging up obscure Hermès items from stores’ old inventory and reselling them to Hermès fanatics. He quickly graduated to Hermès’s showiest products: crocodile Birkin handbags in the $20,000-and-up price range.
His ace in the hole was Hermès’s insistence that buying a Birkin required putting one’s name on a waiting list. Some Hermès stores even told him that the waiting list was closed. So Mr. Tonello, whose book is worthwhile even on the level of business strategy, developed a set of tactics that enabled him to outsmart Hermès salespeople. His irreverence, coupled with the company’s pretension and the overall weirdness of crocodile-handbag addiction, make this book a welcome cure for the usual shop-till-you-drop pathology.
The snobbery, treachery and status seeking that Mr. Tonello describes are, of course, staples of the beach-book world. Penny Vincenzi, an accomplished if long-winded British writer whose style Publishers Weekly has called “chickensian,” has a particular affinity for all of the above. She sets “An Absolute Scandal” in the 1980s and lets it revolve around Lloyd’s of London, though its characters fall into sharply defined socioecomic categories. Told that one character is a “name at Lloyd’s,” another character doesn’t really understand what that means, except that it appears to be “a club for posh, rich people” and “very socially desirable....”