Monday, January 28, 2019

Review: The Gown

I knew about Jennifer Robson's books well before I ever picked one up to read. I had purchased them for other people but, for some bizarre reason, never got around to reading them myself. That changed last year when I heard her speak at a local library event and I bought, and had signed, Goodnight from London. I read it immediately and fell in love. I paid close attention from then on because she had mentioned that night about her next book, which was going to be about women who worked on Queen Elizabeth's wedding dress. Perfect timing since I, and everyone else, was binge-watching The Crown and waiting for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding. This novel though? The Gown is about so much more than a wedding dress worn by a future monarch. And it's incredible - one of my top reads from 2018.

Here's the (really long) synopsis:
From the internationally bestselling author of Somewhere in France comes an enthralling historical novel about one of the most famous wedding dresses of the twentieth century—Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown—and the fascinating women who made it.
“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding
London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.
Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?
With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.
Historical fiction can be tricky...I find authors might try to teach me too much and the novel will read like a textbook or they'll toss facts around willy nilly in a way that makes it seem like they haven't done their research or they had a story idea and just decided to plunk it down in the past. Robson though? She is one of my favourite historical fiction writers. She knows what she's talking about (having a doctorate in British economic and social history from the University of Oxford and a father who's a historian) and is a damn good storyteller. She's able to weave together (ha! No pun intended) a story and I really feel like I'm right there with Ann and Miriam. She knows all the little details that would place the story in 1947 but it doesn't feel like she's lecturing at me. The story and setting sucks me in and I love it.

I hadn't realized, when I first started hearing about the novel, that there would be a contemporary component to this story. I liked reading about all three women and looked forward to their stories intertwining, because I knew they had to, one way or another. I don't think the contemporary story was quite as strong as I expected but I still looked forward to each of Heather's chapters.

The three characters Robson created - Ann, Miriam, and Heather - are amazing women and I adored them. They all face hardships (though Heather's are very much "first world problems"but problems nonetheless - and ones I could completely identify with) and are strong enough to work through them. They can see a solution and will do whatever it takes to get through the tough times. The revelation about Ann just about broke my heart but I was also in awe of how she managed to make the most of the situation. I just wish connections had been kept, though I could understand why she wouldn't want to (vague enough for you?). The friendship between Ann and Miriam is something to be envied and I loved reading it.

The actual plot - Miriam and Ann are embroidering the dress Elizabeth will wear when she marries Philip and, in present-ish day, Heather searching for answers about her grandmother and herself - is also so interesting. You may think that things would get complicated, given the many threads ( pun intended) Robson has to bring together but she's a talented writer and everything flows smoothly.

The Gown is a historical novel that perfectly brings together a specific moment in time with characters who stand out as much as - if not more than - the dress they're embroidering for a future Queen. Jennifer Robson has written one of my favourite books of 2018 and one I've been recommending to everyone and their sisters (I'm also not the only one as it's been on the bestseller lists for multiple publications over the last few weeks!). Even if you think one part of this novel isn't for you, read it anyway because you're going to fall in love.

*I received an ARC of this novel at an event I paid to attend last fall, which was hosted by HarperCollins Canada. There was no expectation for a review but I loved the book so much I needed to tell you all about it.*

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