|The Grace Kelly Dress / Brenda Janowitz|
NY: Graydon House, c2020
I've never read Brenda Janowitz before, and the blurb by Emily Giffin on the front didn't bode well since I don't usually like her books. But the dress element of this book convinced me to pick it up. And I am glad I did! It was a poignant and enjoyable story of three generations of women, and one dress.
The story moves between three women: Rose in 1958 who is creating The Dress, Joanie in 1982 who wore it after her mother did, and Rocky in 2020 who is getting married but doesn't want to wear her mother's dress.
The chapters are all short, and each woman is quite different so it's easy to keep them sorted. Also, Rose is a seamstress in Paris, Joanie is a college student, and Rocky is a contemporary software developer, so they're distinct in their interests, surroundings and behaviours, too.
Of course I loved Rose and all the time spent in Madame Michel's Parisien atelier, where she works. Rose is very skilled, she loves sewing and designing; her focus and her sketches catch the eye of Julian, Madame Michel's assistant, and is called upon to assist him in keeping the atelier running after the unexpected death of Madame Michel, which he is trying to keep a secret. Lots of drama!
Joan is a young college student, a sorority member and recently engaged to a fraternity dude, but she's starting to question a lot about her life. She tries very, very hard to be 'good' to make up for the loss of her older sister, who died at age twenty. This character was a little weak to me, because in parts it felt like she was living more in the late 60s than the early 80s, with her sorority and her pearls and her innocence. But she certainly experiences some of the early 80s when she leaves campus in search of the truth about her sister.
Rocky is a bit rough around the edges, unlike her sultry sister Amanda. She likes logic and order and things being straightforward. She wants a simple wedding, and isn't thrilled about wearing the elaborate Grace Kelly dress from her mother -- but doesn't want to hurt her mother by turning it down, either. There are a bunch more side stories in Rocky's chapters; Amanda is gay and longing for the last girlfriend she ditched, Rocky's fiancé is South Korean but was adopted by a Jewish family and he's now searching for his birth mother, there are mother issues between Rocky and Joan.
But through all three of the stories, the dress, and all the details of making it, shine through. I loved how Rose takes the inspiration from the Grace Kelly wedding dress that was the ideal in 1958 and updates it for a younger client. She talks about details like shortening sleeves, updating necklines, adding lace motifs, and about how to construct a dress like this (in separate parts, skirt held up with underpinnings and cummerbund to cover the bodice and skirt join. As a sewist, a reader can picture this and understand how it makes a gown like this work on the body).
Joanie adapts the dress to her taste in the 80s (think poofy Princess Diana sleeves) and Rocky eventually comes to see how she can make it work for her, too. (no spoilers...) It ends with a fairytale-like omniscient narrator telling the story of the dress' future, and it works, and it's touching and sweet.
If you like stories that move between characters, and don't mind the sentimentality of a book centred around love and weddings, and of course you like to read about sewing, give this one a try. You can't go into it cynically or it just won't work, but if you're looking for a gentle read with some great sewing content and an interesting set-up, you might just find it's exactly what you need.
(this review was first published at Following The Thread)