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Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

The Gown by Jennifer Robson
Published by William Morrow 9780062674951
Trade paperback, $16.99, 400 pages

If you were one of the many people who arose at a very early hour in the morning last year to watch Meghan Markle marry Prince Harry and were wowed by Meghan's stunning wedding dress, then Jennifer Robson's dual timeline novel The Gown is perfect for you.

It begins in 2016 as Heather receives a phone call from her mother that Heather's beloved grandmother Ann has passed away. Among her belongings was a box with a label that read "For Heather". Inside were some beautiful embroidered applique flowers.

Heather did a liitle online research and found that the designs matched the embroidery on Queen Elizabeth's wedding gown from 1947. When Heather loses her journalism job in Toronto, she plans a trip to London to learn more about her grandmother.

In 1947, Ann Hughes works as an embroiderer for the esteemed London dressmaker Mr. Hartnell. She enjoys her job, but times were difficult in post-war London. Rationing of food was still going on, and Ann lived with her widowed sister-in-law Milly to make ends meet.

When Milly moves to Canada to be with her family, Ann takes on a new roommate. Miriam Dassin is a French refugee who shows up at Hartnell's looking for work. She and Ann become coworkers, friends, and roommates, even though Miriam is closemouthed about her life during the war.

The news that Princess Elizabeth will marry brought great joy to England, and when Mr. Hartnell is picked to design and make her wedding dress, Ann and Miriam are chosen to embroider the dress.
While everyone is excited about this, they must be cautious- there are newspapers who have a put a bounty out for any information about the dress. (In case you thought that paparazzi are bad today, there were many pre-TMZ organizations back then as well who used lowdown tactics to get information.)

When Ann is swept off her feet by a handsome man she meets at a dance, she can hardly believe her luck. He takes her to nice restaurants and makes her feel so very special. Miriam too meets a wonderful man, an editor for a local newspaper. But both women remain on their guard, knowing that people want information on the gown.

The Gown is treasure trove for those who love fashion. There are so many wonderful scenes set in Hartnell's, where the ladies work hard to create the gown that the whole world will see.

Robson also gives the reader a look at post-WWII London, which still reels from the bombings and losses sustained. I loved reading about Ann and Miriam's quiet evenings at home, listening to the radio and drawing in their sketchbooks, and Miriam's delight at finding a French grocer, where she purchased green olives, prunes, fennel seed and dried orange zest to make her grandmother's chicken dish.

When Milly sends Ann a huge care package from Canada, the ladies are overwhelmed with her generosity:
"There were tins of corned beef, salmon, evaporated milk, and peaches in syrup. Dried apricots and raisins. A big jar of strawberry jam. Packets of powdered milk, cocoa, tea, sugar and rice. Yards of heavy woolen suiting, finely woven tartan, and bolts of silky printed rayon, one of pale blue and the other a smoky purple, all with thread and buttons to match."

Heather eventually gets some answers about her grandmother's life before she moved to Canada and why she hid her involvement in creating Princess Elizabeth's gown (which you see on the cover of the book).

I enjoyed reading The Gown, for the setting and the story of female friendship between Ann and Miriam. I read it in just two days, completely absorbed in the story, and I highly recommend it for anyone who likes books set in WWII.

Last summer Jennifer Robson appeared at Book Club Girls' Night Out with Kate Quinn and she spoke about writing The Gown. My post about that is here.

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