Published by William Morrow on December 31, 2018
Source: the publisher
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“The Gown is marvelous and moving, a vivid portrait of female self-reliance in a world racked by the cost of war.”–Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Alice Network
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.
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The Gown by Jennifer Robson tells the stories of three women: Ann and Miriam, who are embroiderers working quietly behind-the-scenes to make a Royal wedding gown in 1947, and a young woman named Heather who is working to piece together her grandmother’s mysterious past in 2016. The alternating time periods worked really well here to build up the story as a whole and to make the complete picture more robust.
Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin are working for the famous designer Normal Hartnell in the 1940’s. Hartnell is well-known for making clothes for the Royal family, and Ann delights in the fact that her work is worn by the Queen. Ann went to work at Hartnell at the tender age of fourteen, just out of school, as an apprentice. She was trained in his studio and is one of the very best. Miriam survived the Holocaust and then emigrated from France after enduring some of the most horrific things imaginable, and she was hired on the spot by Mr. Hartnell after working with none other than Christian Dior. Miriam and Ann become friends outside of work and roommates shortly after, and they worked well together on the Royal clothing for the upcoming wedding.
Many years later, Heather Mackenzie’s beloved grandmother has unexpected passed away and with her, it seems she has taken the secrets of her past. She has left Heather a box with some curious things inside: a few pieces of finely embroidered fabric and a photo. As Heather begins to dig into the origin of these pieces, she can hardly believe their history and her grandmother’s secret past. One one hand, she is profoundly proud of her grandmother. But on the other hand, why didn’t her grandmother tell anyone in her family about her past from before she moved to Canada? Any little bit at all? And why did she move to Canada in the first place?
Listen, when I saw the cover of this book, I nearly passed out with the need to read it. Like so many of you, I am stricken with the love-for-all-things-Royal: the thing that gets us out of bed at 4:00 a.m. to see the Royal weddings, the thing that has us combing the Royal social media feeds. I also love historical fiction with the burning passion of a thousand fiery suns. So I thought this would be a perfect combination for me in terms of a great read and I WAS SO RIGHT.
It is interesting, though, that it wasn’t written exactly in the way I had imagined it. There was surprisingly little about the wedding in it. I love love love the way the wedding and wedding preparation took a nice backseat to the making of the garment and to how difficult it was to keep the details about the dress a secret. I love the way the story featured Ann and Miriam instead of the Royal family. Sure, they make appearance, but they’re never the main players. This story is strictly about the embroiderers and their quest to make this the most beautiful wedding gown possible for their Royal family.
The Gown was also about the hard conditions they endured right after the war and the joy the dressmaking brought to their lives. It was about the small things that these women found comfort in when there was so little in the way of creature comforts. It was about friendship and about their heartaches and the things that had happened to them that they wanted to keep buried in the past. I loved every single page of it, even the painful ones.
Of course I also loved Heather’s portion of the story and her quest to figure out the history of her grandmother. I can’t imagine not knowing anything at all about someone so pivotal in my life, as it seems that Heather’s grandmother was her everything. Heather’s trip to England to “find” her grandmother was fun to read but it also tugged at my heartstrings as I wished she could just have a chat with the woman and ask her questions and hear the answers she needed.
Heather’s part of the story was very good, but I loved hearing from Ann and Miriam more.
The Gown is wonderful. It’s a definite recommendation for those that love historical fiction that weaves together past and present, and for those that have a special interest in anything-Royal. I would say that readers that like having that little touch of a mystery in their stories will enjoy this one too, because I wasn’t expecting that in this story but I found that it was the surprise that kept me turning the pages quickly; like Heather, I wanted to know the answers to questions that I had.