BookScapes: The Gown

Jennifer Robson has chosen a winning subject for her fifth novel, a story about the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown and the transformative role it plays in the lives of three women: Ann Hughes, an embroiderer in the London workroom of designer Norman Hartnell; Ann’s co-worker, Miriam Dassin, a French emigre and Holocaust survivor; and Ann’s Canadian granddaughter, Heather who is bequeathed Ann’s box of embroidered flowers and, cut loose from her job, sets out on a quest to understand their significance to her grandmother and herself.

Deftly told in a braided narrative, the story moves among these three women. The central story–the creation of the gown and its real and symbolic importance to bleak post-war London–anchors the book’s first part and Heather’s discoveries the second. Robson ably captures the spirit of the British as they face the difficult task of putting their lives together after the war:

“Just keep your chin up, Ann, and you can face anything,” Mum had said. “And don’t look back, no matter what you do.” Her mum had never been one for hugs or soft words, but she had been honest, and most of the time she’d been right, too. So chin up it was, and no looking back.

She also captures the difficulty of the work, as challenging as that of any of the old masters’ paintings:

The satin for the appliqué pieces was slippery, frayed all too readily, and couldn’t be basted or pinned for fear of leaving marks. Then, once applied, each appliqué had to be decorated with an eye-watering variety of embellishments. And they had to set each stitch with the knowledge that the reverse of their work might be clearly seen by anyone, for the train was transparent, and any sort of additional backing to the reverse of the appliquéd pieces would strain the delicate tulle.

While the plot may sometimes seem a bit serendipitous, that’s life, isn’t it? Or rather, that’s the quest story: full of twists of fate and pleasing surprises that seem to have been put together by some master designer. Altogether, The Gown is a satisfying novel, especially for those of us who are fascinated by fabrics and the way they are woven into the warp and weft of our lives.

Bonus #1: Go here for Jennifer Robson’s informative Time Magazine article on the making of the gown, plus photos of the gown and the royal wedding.

Bonus #2: Consider this novel together with The Pink Suit, by Nicole Mary Kelby.


11 comments on “BookScapes: The Gown

  1. I enjoyed reading this a few months ago and recommended it to several friends then. I’m glad you’ve reviewed it, so it may get even more readers.

  2. I’m very sure I worked with fabrics in another life! This sounds right up my alley. Thanks for sharing–I will check it out as well!

  3. That sounds like a story I would really like. I’ll order it from the library immediately. Thanks, Susan!

  4. This was just what I needed to read today….and I too will check out my library for this book.

  5. I love this line, “Just keep your chin up, Ann, and you can face anything,” Mum had said. We all need to remember this.

  6. Thank you for another intriguing suggestion; I have followed your book suggestions and lists of books read for years and found lots of good ones. I’m ordering this one up from our library.

  7. It’s easier to like a story that’s filled with likable characters, isn’t it? Yes, satisfying.

  8. I really enjoyed this book. Good story. Likeable characters. Good historical details. Wonderful details about the planning of the design and physical creation. A very satisfactory read.

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