Arts book review

“Other People’s Clothes”: A peek at Berlin’s party scene

Calla Henkel’s debut is a gaudy, glamorous journey

Other People’s Clothes
By Calla Henkel
Feb. 1

“Every night you miss in Berlin is a night you miss in Berlin,” begins Calla Henkel’s debut novel Other People’s Clothes. And indeed, this concept is a driving force for the two main characters of this superficially sparkling story. Other People’s Clothes is a psychological thriller about two art students, Zoe Beech and Hailey Mader, who are studying abroad in Berlin, Germany for a semester. They rent an apartment from writer Beatrice Becks and her mother Janet, but as they settle in, they start to suspect that Beatrice is spying on them, trying to gain material for her new novel.  Determined to give Beatrice a story worth writing about, Hailey decides to turn the apartment into a nightclub. She crafts elaborate personas for herself and Zoe and begins throwing outlandishly wild parties every week. And Zoe goes along with it — at least until tragedy strikes.

Henkel does a brilliant job crafting the atmosphere of the novel. Other People’s Clothes is peppered with references to the aughts — Lindsay Lohan’s stint in rehab and Britney Spears’s constant presence in the tabloids, to name a couple. The most pervasive reference, however, is to the infamous Amanda Knox case, with much of the action in the novel echoing it. We learn early on that Zoe is traumatized by the murder of her best friend Ivy, a ballerina who was unexpectedly stabbed by an unknown culprit — this is exactly what happened to Knox’s roommate. Everything Zoe does is in an attempt to both honor Ivy’s memory and try to move past her grisly murder.

Another major part of the novel is Zoe’s internal struggle over her identity — a struggle familiar to many young people who are attempting to find their place in the world. She is still figuring out what it means to be wholly herself, how to detach her identity from that of Ivy’s, and perhaps most importantly, how to define her own sexuality. Indeed, she abruptly comes out as gay to the patriarch of the family for which she nannies when he attempts to make an advance on her. She also spends much of the novel dating a female musician named Holiday (although dating may be a premature word, as they are never completely exclusive). Ultimately Zoe spends much of the novel in a state of internal conflict.

Hailey is a different figure altogether. A wealthy, pop culture-obsessed grocery store heiress, Hailey lives for adventure and fame. Masterminding the apartment nightclub idea, she is the one who is excited at the prospect of becoming a character in one of Beatrice Beck’s books, which are described as the kind of literature one could find at an airport bookstore. However, Hailey comes off a little too over-the-top in her drive to be more “quirky” and “fun.” She’s the kind of person who would show up to class in “bright lipstick, either wearing Victoria’s Secret PINK sweatpants or tight lowrider jeans—nothing in between.” The description doesn’t do Hailey justice — she is a far more nuanced character with complicated motives. We see this emerge when the nightclub begins to spiral out of control. Zoe tries to stay calm while Hailey is the first to snap. And after a few weeks of tension, Zoe comes home high on ketamine to find Hailey dead in her bed.

This is where Other People’s Clothes begins to veer off its path. What had previously been a psychological thriller about superficiality and overindulgence suddenly becomes a murder mystery. Zoe is hospitalized after having a breakdown on live television, while also thrust into playing detective after being accused of murdering Hailey. The ending of the novel is an Agatha Christie mystery gone wrong — there are notecards in secret languages, confessions made by murderers, and gratuitous use of wigs. The one redeeming aspect, however, is the parallel between Beatrice and Janet, and Zoe and Hailey. It comes out that Janet had been living vicariously through her daughter Beatrice the entire time — writing her books for her, coming up with plotlines, and even once dressing up as Beatrice for a book signing. Janet was the one who murdered Hailey to provide material for her daughter’s new book. Zoe herself acknowledges that both she and Hailey have aspects of Janet in them — Zoe with her desire to mold herself into first Ivy and then Hailey with her all-consuming, ever-burning desire for fame.

Ultimately, the novel is a recreation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for the modern age — a champagne-bubble of a story with a fervent message about the dangers of depravity. Despite the issues in its latter half, Other People’s Clothes is a thrilling debut with sparkling characters.