A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff


Phoebe Swift is heartbroken about the death of her best friend since forever and the possibility that she could have prevented that death. As the book begins, she’s broken from her high-pressure though prestigious career with Sotheby’s auction house to start a small business selling vintage dresses.

This being firmly in the chicklit genre, there are plenty of relationship and familial subplots: her parents’ divorce, her father’s prompt remarriage as a result of the Other Woman’s pregnancy which split the original marriage, her mother’s neuroses about her own fleeting youth resulting in a search for The Ultimate Beauty Treatment, and of course Phoebe’s own relationships with the men in her life. There’s Guy, the ex-boyfriend. There’s Dan, the newspaper reporter with little fashion sense who gave her shop its first media exposure. There’s Miles Archant, the wealthy City man who wants to love Phoebe, but can’t leave his daughter for her.

Most importantly, in regards subplots in this particular book, there’s The Blue Coat. Phoebe visits an elderly ill Frenchwoman, Therese, who, realizing she cannot possibly wear them again, decides to sell her collection of clothing…with the exception of certain specific items. Among these items is a child’s sky-blue coat, obviously decades old and equally obviously for a girl much younger and smaller than Therese. Phoebe expresses curiosity as to why this particular coat has such significance to Therese, and when Therese is ready: she tells the story. When she was thirteen, in France in the very early 1940s, a girl came to her school in Provence, fleeing political events in the north of France–anyone with a grasp of history will be able to fill in the blanks here, but Therese is a bit slower. The family is Jewish, and fled the possibility of German Nazi oppression. This does not last, and all the family but the girl is captured; she remains behind, hiding in a barn, but is turned in by a Nazi sympathizer whom Therese was trying to impress by mentioning her friend. Therese has spend the intervening decades crushed by guilt at what she did to her friend.

This book reminded me of The Secret Life of Dresses, though in that case the stories were in the main invented by the shop owner while here, the story, at least for one of the garments, is quite real. There is the same love of vintage clothing and (IIRC) discussion of the differences in styles from one decade to the next, the same delight in finding a dress only you will be seen in rather than a modern dress for which there are multiple copies and knockoffs floating around here and now. There’s the same love of fabrics and of fashion, and of finding just the right dress for you and the style for her.

It is not, however, for people who like sophistication in their plots; I’m notably stupid in regards mysteries–I never ever guess whodunit even in the simplest novels–but with this book, as with The Secret Life of Dresses, each character’s decisions were telegraphed to me before even the characters realized what they were going to do. But then is any chicklit like that? and is that why anybody reads the stuff? I doubt it. If we wanted to guess or balance along the thread of suspense, we’d be reading thrillers and mysteries.

Oh, and what’s the connection between the girl Therese and the adult Phoebe, separated by so many decades of history and years of maturity? I’m not going to tell, wanting to leave some spoilers unspoilt, but I’m sure astute readers will guess fairly early into the book.

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