I love looking at wedding dresses, and I enjoy reading historical fiction. I’m also getting married this year. It just so happens that all of these things collided when I read The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson – a very good novel that contains more substance than people would normally expect.
The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding mainly takes place in 1947 London, and it’s about two embroiderers, Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, who work for the famed designer Norman Hartnell. They forge an unlikely friendship, yet their hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen to take part in creating Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown. Meanwhile, in 2016 Toronto, Heather Mackenzie tries to unravel a mystery of a set of embroidered flowers that her late grandmother, who never spoke of her time in Great Britain, possessed. It just so happens that they resemble quite closely to the ones seen on Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding dress.
First things first, I know some people don’t like how basic the title is, but I love it! I adore how it signifies the importance of a specific dress and how excited people get when looking forward to seeing it, especially in a time when people had to ration. Also, I enjoy saying “The Gown” like an artistic movie director describing their mindsets while filming. And, this is coming from someone who would normally make fun of those vague titles (see The Child for reference).
As I mentioned in my “What Am I Reading” section on this book, I had a hunch that it was going to be more than just pretty dresses, and I was right. The book doesn’t talk much about the gown itself (luckily, one can easily search for photos of it.) It focuses more on the relationship between Ann – a British woman who lost a brother during the war – and Miriam – a French Jewish woman who was in French Resistance and later in the Ravenbruck concentration camp. During the course of the novel, Ann and Miriam become sincere friends. As loners in the world, they help each other get through some tough times. For Miriam, Ann sees her as an artist before she realizes that herself and accepts her for who she is. For Ann, Miriam completely understands what happens to her after a man who she was seeing abuses her, and she imparts some advice on how to move on. I felt invested in this friendship because of the ones that I’ve forged over the years as well as the hope it instills into readers. As a result, the book is pretty pleasant read despite one disturbing rape scene.
As much as I enjoyed reading The Gown, I had two complaints. One is that I felt the author spent a little too much time with Heather – Ann’s granddaughter. I noticed that each of the chapters is devoted to Ann, Miriam, and Heather in that order. In the beginning, I was not all that into Heather’s story since I didn’t want to hear that she got laid off, and I wanted the novel to go back to 1947. It got a little better once Heather flew to England and met Miriam and her grandson Daniel because it was more integrated with the main story. I still wished that she would have brought her mother along just so she could see Ann’s work on the dress. The other critique is that I didn’t understand why Ann didn’t tell her daughter and granddaughter about her work with that wedding dress as well as why she and Miriam lost contact after the former moved to Canada. I get that she wanted to get away from the guy who took advantage of her, and it may take a long time for someone to move on from trauma, yet the book makes it seems that she had mostly a good time working on the gown. Also, she could have mailed a letter with her new address to Miriam, and they could have corresponded that way. However, I can see how both wanted to move on with their lives, and maybe being reminded of the other would trigger something in their past, yet their sudden distance felt abrupt. I guess if Ann did those things, we wouldn’t have the Heather subplot.
American-born English actress Marisa Calin narrates the audiobook. She has been nominated and won some awards for her work, both in an ensemble and solo, and she does a fairly good job. She maintains English, French, Canadian, and Irish accents and their distinct flairs well. The only thing I have to complain about is that the men sound very similar.
Overall, The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson is a pretty good historical fiction book. Despite some flawed details, the main characters and their friendship will win readers as they demonstrate hope and resilience in tough times. I would definitely recommend it to those who love historical fiction, especially ones that take place before, during, or after World War II; fashion; and books about members of the royal family. It’s amazing to think that one wedding dress not only inspired a nation, but also a wonderful historical fiction book.
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