Picture: Pan Macmillan South Africa
Vanessa Raphaely is one of those women you hear so much about that it’s difficult not to be a tad daunted when interviewing her.

She’s put the spotlight on many, held some of the most powerful positions in the cut-throat media world and now, after all these years finds herself penning a debut novel. And, I discovered - as I furiously turned the pages, racing towards the end - a damned good one at that.

It comes as something of a surprise then to find that, despite her considerable CV and the obvious confidence she bears at having been at the helm of so many magazines and a publishing company, that she wrote 15 drafts of "Plus One".

Raphaely’s impressive career in the world of women’s media includes editing a health and beauty magazine in London, and locally most magazine readers know her as the editor of Cosmopolitan and the content director of publishing house Associated Press, among the many other jewels in her professional crown.

She finally left it in 2015 after decades in the industry. An avid reader of anything and everything, she was quoted in an online interview back in 2014 as saying that she loved good literature too much to produce something bad so she’d probably never write a book. But that was then, now she says of her new direction: “I thought why not give it a try? So I just started and wrote it.”

She relates: “There were massive wobbles. I sent it to my (former) boss and she said it was the biggest garbage. I was flattened. Then I sent it to my friend Nadine. Nadine gave it a second chance and when my friend Mandy Wiener (author of Ministry of Crime) read it, she really loved it.”

A familiar story of the birthing of a first novel. She writes in her acknowledgment: “The reason this book exists at all is because of colleagues, family and friends, who encouraged and supported me while I wallowed in self-doubt, whined, moaned and rewrote.”

And yes, the book is indeed a fabulous read. A mixture of suspense, intrigue, a love story and a serious look at the cut-throat world of fashion media, it’s blessed with a light and deft touch along with, as Raphaely says, “dark material”.

Raphaely’s immersive and fascinating tale has as its protagonist the deputy editor of a London glamour magazine, Lisa Lassiter.

Lisa’s best friend is Claudia Hemmingway, a waif-like but beautiful model and, after a run up in which the pair get wined and dined and party in some of London’s glitziest and hottest establishments, Claudia persuades her to join her on a billionaire luxury yacht, The Aegi, set to be gently bobbing on the Aegean.

A small and elite group of the rich and famous will be staying in the palatial suites that grace the yacht, that is owned by a rich Greek family. Included in the VIP guests will be Hollywood film producer Robert Morton.

But as it turns out, Lisa finds out that Morton has more than a shady past. While he has multitudes of adoring fans and is a well-respected celebrity, it’s revealed to Lisa that he is definitely not squeaky clean.

Raphaely says: “They say write what you know. I lived that life and had two Hollywood boyfriends. I have been on those yachts.”

As portrayed in the book, Lisa’s friendship with Claudia ends up being on very shaky ground.

“To all women there is that frailty in friendship and within our own self-image we often display limited power. The themes here are very real themes - a man whom you admired who lets you down - the process is very normal and in writing about Lisa I explore the fact that she understood the deal and how it affected her professionalism.”

She adds that in writing she was very well aware that one has to have a story that keeps the reader there.

And that it does, as the dynamics of relationships are explored; the somewhat debauched partying of the guests on board the yacht and the surprising (or not) death on board.

There’s a romance that slowly builds up as a key parallel to the main storyline as Lisa and Liam, Claudia’s protective brother, fall for each other. Liam is painted in mysterious colours but with a seductive charm.

Raphaely is skilled at setting the scene and crafts a fine story as she leads up to the high drama at sea, the murder investigation and the unsettling distance that builds between Lisa and Claudia and her brother.

It takes Lisa 10 years to get over that fateful weekend; and in moments of deep reflection, some set in Cape Town to where she returns, she comes to the realisation that nasty unfinished business and the dirty secrets of the past eventually work their way to the surface. And raises the question as to how one forgets but also forgives as one moves on.

Brilliant are the penultimate scenes where Raphaely describes with obvious relish the Hollywood Women Awards Ceremony in Los Angeles where Claudia is set to receive an award. The superficiality of the models and stars. The pain they endure to look the way they look and the emptiness behind some of their gazes is superbly evoked.

Writes Raphaely: “It is always a shock to see so many of the world’s most celebrated beauties up close, Here in the harsh lights of the ballroom, lit for live TV transmission, not real life, with their cosmetic surgery, their make-up trowelled on and their hair sprayed to lifeless helmets, they resemble tiny wax models of themselves more than they do human beings. Close up, I realise, ‘contouring’ transforms these perfect faces into the ‘before’ pages of a paint-by-numbers kit.”

As things come to head, the final chapter offers a deliciously clever twist to the tale ... but let me not spoil it. Hopefully, with this winner of a book we’ll be seeing more of Raphaely as a novelist.