BOOK REC: The Dress Shop of Dreams – Menna Van Praag

Author: Menna van Praag (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Allison and Busby

Genre: Magic realism, romance, mystery

Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires.

Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. Cora’s studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her forever. Determined not to allow Cora to miss her chance at happiness, Etta sews a tiny stitch into Walt’s collar, hoping to give him the courage to confess his feelings to Cora. But magic spells–like true love–can go awry. After Walt is spurred into action, Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

I’ll be honest, I was intially drawn to this book because it was on a shelf with a full collection of other titles from the same author and publisher, all in the same style but in a rainbow of colours, and I had to be talked down from clearing the shelf because they looked so beautiful together. This is the second Allison and Busby book I’ve bought, and the other – Unmarriageable – is also stunning, so mad props to their cover designers. They’re smashing it out of the park.

I settled on this specific title for me as I remembered my frustations with The Perfect Dress, where I wanted more time spent talking about the dresses and exploring the slight implications of magic that came with them. While that was about second hand wedding dresses with a story, these dresses appear to be made in-shop, so don’t have that sort of history, but still have a power. Etta picks the right dress to solve her customers’ problems, literally tailoring her service to their lives. This is the premise for her solving her granddaughter’s romantic woes as she overlooks the young man who has been in love with her for years.

Sadly I didn’t quite get what I was looking for here either! In the same way Van Praag did with The Sisters Grimm, the narrative winds its way through the core characters, starting with a small group but then gradually spreading out through other people they encounter along the way. While this leads to an organic story experience, for me I found that it took me away from the storyline I cared about, and I felt that the story became diluted and lost its drive. The love story got lost behind the murder mystery, the catfishing side story, the marital difficulties of the police officer, the disenchantment of the priest taking confession… It’s a lovely reminder that nothing happens in a vacuum, and a wonderful way of showing that every character is living a full life. Van Praag doesn’t allow anyone to just pass through as an one-off character simply with no purpose other than to further the central plot. They’re all fleshed out, given backstories and their own motivations. It’s impressive and really quite lovely.

The downside to this is that it means the story can become a little meandering. People passing who come into contact with the main characters are suddenly part of the narrative and the plots split and spread. It becomes difficult to know who to focus on. This was a style that didn’t necessarily work well with the way I read. I work best with plots that are more structured and driven, and can struggle to find my way to the end of books that are more meandering. This doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them – I adored Leonard and Hungry Paul, for example, but while that had a leisurely pace it had a clear focus on characters as an alternative. What I struggled with in this was that neither the characters nor the plot were clearly defined and every time it switched character or plotline it felt like starting fresh and momentum was lost. This was exactly the same issue I had with The Sisters Grimm, although in that it felt more of an issue as there seemed to be an impetus and urgency to the plot that I just wasn’t getting.

I felt it worked better in this novel than The Sisters Grimm, as each story was more personal. There were no life-or-death stakes and a pressing deadline to save anyone. Instead this was focused on character growth and relationships, on resolving loose threads from many years before. It meant that the more winding structure didn’t feel at odds with the narrative, I didn’t feel a conflict between a stressful plot and a more sedate narrative.

I thought the magic realism/light fantasy touch was interesting. Everyone in the book seemed to have their own unique power, and it helped guide them to where they needed to be in life. These were never explained or expanded on, except with a throwaway line about how everyone had their own kind of magic in some way. It was almost as though these powers were like senses, or whether you were right or left-handed. Some people could instinctively tell when you were lying, others could hear your sins, others could find the perfect dress for your exact needs, and stitch wishes into them. They’re simple, almost mundane magics that are just carefully stitched into the story, like a seam running through the middle, but never impeding on or dictating to the narrative.

While this book wasn’t exactly for me – and that’s entirely based on how I suit reading, and the timing of my reading this book, after a bit of a reading slump so I had been looking for something that I could push through quickly – it was a lovely book, and structured in such a way that it felt very relaxed. I would have liked to see more of the dresses (my old complaint) and discuss why each dress manages to influence the wearer in the way it does, but that’s again a very personal preference. If you want something that reminds you of a Sunday teatime drama, warm and gentle, then this is probably the perfect book for you.

Briefly:

  • A story that combines romance, mystery and marital drama, the plot ripples out slowly from the central conceit of a grandmother trying to help her daughter find love, and each character it touches is granted a developed life and story of their own.
  • This structure makes for quite a slow story – it doesn’t rush or pull you through, but rather it trickles along like a gentle brook. There’s no deadline, which means it’s a lovely and unpressured read. If you’re looking for something comparatively stress free, this is ideal.
  • That said, as a result of that I think there are some elements which are wrapped up more easily than I think they necessarily deserved to be. In some ways that can be a relief, however, to not play into the expected dramatic narrative styles, and instead just… let people be happy. Whether you find that personally satisfying is up to you, but it does fit with the idea of just simple magic bringing everything together in the final act, as has been implied through the earlier story.

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