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Review: Rouge by Richard Kirshenbaum

Rouge by Richard Kirshenbaum is a rich and vivid look at the rivalry of two beauty industry icons.

This story is a fictional take based on the real-life rivalry between the beauty industry pioneers Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. They were competitors for more than fifty years. Instead of Helena and Elizabeth, Rouge tell the story of Josephine Herz and Constance Gardiner. Although, even with different names, you will wonder what’s true and what’s fiction.

Josiah Herzenstein is born in a Polish Jewish Shtlel and will eventually transform herself into a global style icon and the richest woman in the world, Josephine Herz. Constance Gardiner, her rival, is the ultimate society woman who invents the door-to-door business and its female workforce but whose deepest secret threatens everything. CeeCee Lopez, the bi-racial beauty and founder of the first African American woman’s hair relaxer business, overcomes prejudice and heartbreak to become her community’s first female millionaire.

The women of Rouge

We mainly read the story from the perspectives of Josephine, Constance and CeeCee. I was most engaged with Josephine and CeeCee’s storylines. Society tries to hold both of those characters back but they’re both laser-focused on their goals. Constance, on the other hand, is very much a hypocrite. While everything is handed to her, she’s never truly satisfied.

As you can imagine, Josephine and Constance are bitter rivals. I typically am not a fan of women being pit against one another. However, in this case, it’s less societal pressure and more their own choices to battle. While they have more in common than they think, there’s a refusal to even entertain the thought of purposely being in the same room together, let alone potentially work together one day. Yet, they’re both fully aware that they need each other—the competition drives both of them to innovate more, expand their businesses, etc. Apparently, the real-life rivalry was just as vicious, if not even more so.

I couldn’t help but think if they could put egos aside and work together—what kind of new products and creations could they have made?

Historical details

The author definitely did his research! There’s plenty of dazzling details about the creation of the different types of makeup and beauty products. While it’s pre-Mad Men era, this did remind me of the show in many ways with the behind the scenes look at making and marketing products; the work obsession and the focus on relationships.

Rouge is an entertaining look at two bitter rivals who invented the modern cosmetics industry. Historical fiction fans will love all the descriptions of a long-ago era. While makeup lovers may find a new appreciation for the women who created the products. And prior to publication, Rouge received plenty of buzz as Sony already acquired the film rights to the book, according to Variety.

There’s lots to discuss with this one! Click here for my book club questions.