The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean


Dora, one class short of an early graduation from college, rushes home when her grandmother, who raised her, is hospitalized with a stroke. She moves back into the house where she grew up, now only inhabited by Gabby, her grandmother’s friend, and takes over running the vintage dress shop while her grandmother is in hospital. She spends much of her free time at her grandmother’s bedside, holding Mimi’s hand and wishing she had said all the loving things and asked all the questions about her parents for which she’s now run out of time. When her grandmother dies, Dora tries returning to Lymond College and a likely acceptance into graduate school, but realizes that continuing in the safety of what she’d loved in college was only a stopgap to making the decision about how to spend the rest of her life.

The plot is predictable–I’d guessed that Dora would choose Forsythe, Con and the dress shop over continuing in graduate school and her boss at the coffee shop about ten minutes after her arrival in town–but I did catch myself dabbing a tear or two away from my eye at the hospital room scenes. In short, this is a classic example of chicklit book discussion material; it even comes with a list of potential book discussion questions in the back–nice for the leader of the group that decides to do this, but which always struck me as a bit presumptuous. How are the publishers to know which books will be picked?

I do love the descriptions of the dresses in Mimi’s shop, and Dora’s selection process of same; she’d resisted her grandmother’s blandishments as a teenager but is forced to dress from the shop as she rushed home in such a hurry that she forgot to pack. No thrift store or even merely “second hand”, Mimi has a collection of vintage dresses in her shop, some serious, some flirty, some girlish, some matronly. These dresses are also the source of the book’s title: Mimi has made up a story for many of the garments, as if the dresses themselves could speak and tell of the events surrounding the circumstances under which they were worn. Twee, I know, and it’s a plot device that others found offputting, but I do also wonder what the garments could say about their owners.

Overall, it’s a nice quick comfort read; nothing wrong with a good tearjerker bit of chicklit for beach reading now and again! It has no real deeper social meaning or historical context, just a romance, a death in the family/marriage among friends and a girl in search of herself. I’d suggest it to anyone wanting a light read that was a step above your average fluff bestseller.

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