The White Dress, by Nathalie Léger

Les Fugitives (UK), 2020, Dorothy Project, (US) 2020

Longlisted for the Believer magazine 2021 fiction prize

The White Dress is the third in Nathalie Léger’s award-winning triptych of books about women who “through their oeuvre, transform their lives into a mystery” (ELLE). In Exposition, Léger wrote about the Countess of Castiglione, the most photographed woman of the nineteenth century; in Suite for Barbara Loden she took up the actress and filmmaker Barbara Loden; here, Léger grapples with the tragic 2008 death of Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca, who was raped and murdered while hiking from Italy to the Middle East in a wedding dress to promote world peace. A harrowing meditation on the risks women encounter, in life and in art, The White Dress also brings to a haunting conclusion Léger’s personal interrogation—sustained across all three books—of her relationship with her mother and the desire for justice in our lives.

Read an excerpt on Granta.


“Léger weaves together the story of Bacca’s journey, astute discussions of Marina Abramović and Svetlana Alexievich, and an account of the injustice Léger’s mother endured during her divorce. Léger grapples with her inability to understand the motivations of others, and with the ambiguity of giving voice to the silenced.” —New Yorker

“Now that all three books exist in English thanks to Dorothy Project and exceptional translations by Natasha Lehrer and Amanda DeMarco, it feels as if the stakes have been tripled. Though each book is a case study of a particular woman’s life, the neat boundaries of these subjects aren’t meant to hold. ‘On the winding path of femininity,’ Léger writes, ‘the loose stone you stumble over is another woman.’ These slippages are part of the danger and excitement of Léger’s work—look long enough at another woman, and you may find yourself looking in a mirror.” —Laura Marris, On the Seawall

“The White Dress shows Léger doing something new. Her melodious intertwining of another’s story with her own recalls her other works, but this is an altogether darker, altogether more unashamedly melancholic exploration of narrative [. . .] Léger’s message seems to be that to immerse oneself in other people’s stories, whether out of pity or simple escapism, is only to find a projection of one’s own life.” —Charlie Stone, The Arts Desk

“The triptych doesn’t just tell a story about mothers and daughters, about female pain and female beauty, about performance and shame, but—further down—a story about how art is made: how involuntary, how compulsive, and how merciless the relationship between artist and subject can be.” —Leslie Jamison, Bookforum

“I’ve just re-read Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, translated by Cécile Menon and Natasha Lehrer, as well as the two forthcoming books that form a trilogy with that one: The White Dress, also translated by Lehrer, and Exposition, translated by Amanda Demarco. All three defy categorisation—history, essay, memoir, fiction. I admire the wholeness and agility of these works very much.” —Catherine Lacey 

“Nathalie Léger is a melancholy sentinel. From book to book she writes with a hunter’s instinct, questioning the motives of women who, through their oeuvre, transform their lives into a mystery.” —ELLE (France)

“More than just an exploration of a violent news story, The White Dress performs a subtle set of variations on the theme of remnants, of the ghosts that live within us.” —Le Monde des livres

“This trilogy feels more than a feminist recovery of narrative: it is a method through which the lives of women artists are reimagined and remade through the writer herself, a mode of hospitality in which lives coalesce and transform one another.” —Katie Da Cunha Lewin, The White Review

“The word triptych, not trilogy. Because the books are not a straight line. The books scoff at straight lines, reveal how any line can lookstraight if you’re zoomed too far in. The books are not discrete episodes, they are all one thing, they are all one project.” —Kyle Williams, Full Stop

“With ferocity and pathos, Léger enters into a standing-with relationship with these other women only to realize she’s been in touch with herself the entire time. This feels to me like the natural movement of the most revelatory art criticism—to move close to the work, to ride along then pierce the work’s textured surface into its mysterious netherworld then looping back out (through innards) towards these words you hear out there in the private distance only to find them coming from your own mouth. With all of these women—Countess of Castiglione, Barbara Loden and Wanda (and Alma H Malone), and Pippa Bacca—Léger comes to know them as women who lived rich lives, artists’ lives, intensely felt.” —Jay Ponteri, Essay Daily

“The White Dress inspects the imaginary frontier between art and life.” —Libération

“This harrowing story, told in Léger’s agile, exploratory, and gorgeously labyrinthine prose, raises questions about womanhood, justice, and what it means to make art in the world. To be consumed in one sitting and mulled over forever.—Halley Parry, bookseller at Skylight Books in L.A.

“The suffocating interpolations of being a woman have concealed the words of so many: Pippa Bacca, whose seemingly naive project is now bound to her rape and murder; American actor and director Barbara Loden, whose project of semi-autobiographical film Wanda details the listlessness of life for the 1970s American housewife; The Countess of Castiglione, whose hope had been to exhibit her photos at the upcoming 1900 International Exposition; and Léger’s own mother, whose words ‘too have been hidden away.’ The triptych not only unearths the lost narratives of noted women; but more significantly the writers’ reckoning with her own mother—’I never helped her, I never stood up for her’—suggests that the triptych’s aim is to give voice to one woman: her mother.” —Clancey D’Isa, Chicago Review of Books

“Readers should not miss this smart, skillful reckoning with acts of selflessness, betrayal, and grief.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)