So, a few weeks ago I was wandering our local Amazon Book Store (we’ve got an actual, brick-and-mortar Amazon shop here in Boston!) and I spotted a pink book and could not resist.
See, when I was little my mom would take me and my brothers to our local library every week to pick out books. Before I mastered the art of, you know, actually reading, I picked my books solely based on their color. And pink was my FAVORITE.
I was also super drawn to this book based on it’s genre: Magical Realism (MY FAVE) and it’s setting: Cambridge and Oxford, England. I studied in England for a semester in college, and took a Latin class at Oxford (the picture below is me outside my dorm at University College, Oxford when I went back to visit 3 years ago) and I thought it might be nice to pay my old stomping grounds a visit through literature!
And this book did not disappoint.
The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna Van Praag tells the story of Cora Carraway, a brilliant young scientist who lives a life full of precise calculations and rigid routines. This emotionless way of living has made it so she’s totally overlooked her lovely childhood friend and local shopkeeper, Walt, who has been pining after her since he was a toddler. Cora was orphaned at age five after her parents were killed in a mysterious fire, and has been raised by her dressmaker grandmother, Etta, since then.
Etta is a super interesting character for a lot of reasons. Firstly, she is able to sew magic into the dresses she sells at her shop. Secondly, she has a complicated past that she’s trying to come to terms with. Thirdly, her love and devotion to her granddaughter’s happiness is just so sweet.
Actually, all of the characters- and there are quite a few- manage to be flawed and sweet at the same time. Everyone, even the characters who commit crimes and tell lies, also have this soft, vulnerable underbelly that made them kind of stand out to me as a reader.
Every character also has their own unique and meaningful journey. Cora sets out to solve the mystery of her parent’s death, while Etta pushes herself to reconnect with an old love. Walt gets involved in a fast-moving relationship built entirely on dishonesty, and his new significant other, Milly, tries to balance her selfish desires with her inherent goodness. There’s several other characters scattered throughout the novel, and they all have these really realistic problems; an ailing parent, a failing marriage, alcoholism, a deep regret.
My one critique of the novel is that it didn’t spend enough time developing all of these characters and their stories. It’s not a very long book, and it is told in a fast-paced third person perspective that hops around from person to person throughout each chapter. An average scene was only 3-5 pages in length, and I felt like I just wanted MORE. More description, more dialogue, and more scenes all together. I wanted more interaction between Walt and Cora, and Cora and Etta, especially. Considering that these three were the most central characters, it would have been so, so nice to get to know them a little better. But in the end, I felt like as much time was spent with Milly and Detective Henry Dixon and all these other side characters as the main characters. And as compelling as the side characters were, I thought a bit more main character development could have made this book a big deal.
Also, and this is so weird, but I feel like the title didn’t really match the plot of this book. When you read “Dress Shop of Dreams,” you don’t think “quirky mystery/magical realism with interesting characters who have very real problems.” I for one thought I was going to be reading a super sappy romance novel, but that’s not what this is. Sure, there’s some sappy romance in there, which I DID NOT MIND AT ALL. And there’s also other, deeper, more thought provoking stuff (which I also did not mind). From a marketing perspective, the girly title is probably off-putting to many readers.
Overall, I’d give this book a 4/5. I loved the fast pace, the realistic character flaws, and the whimsical setting and events. But I wish there was a little more of it to read!