My Review of: The Dressmaker's Gift by Fiona Valpy
A few months back, I organized a Book Club at our condo community. I thought it would be a good way to meet new people here in Puerto Rico. First two meetings, there were only two of us! But we persisted and had five last month to discuss John Grisham's legal thriller, The Judge's List. Most people liked it, I thought it was meh (check out my review). Our next meeting is next Saturday and we'll be talking about The Dressmaker's Gift (affiliate link to Amazon).
I liked this novel fairly well, but with some caveats. To start, it was a narrative- and reflection-heavy story (a lot of tell, not show). And it was slow. I know this isn't supposed to be a thriller, but the bulk of the story is set in occupied Paris during WW2. I thought there'd be a lot more tension.
Then, there's the structure of the novel. It's a modern trend, I guess, but the time jumps! Please. Can't we just have a regular historical novel set in the past? There are three main plot threads. The first is about Harriet (the modern day character from 2017). She's piecing together the story of her grandmother Claire who was a seamstress in 1940s Paris. The flashback chapters involve three friends - Claire, Vivienne, and Mirieille - and their roles in the French resistance.
Another "meh" for me was the modern day premise. I guess you need a rationale to start a story, but the set up was a bit too convenient - Harriet goes to Paris in 2017 on a kind of inner journey of discovery and ends up working in the same dress shop as her grandmother Claire and meeting Mirielle's granddaughter (Simone) in the same couture shop. They board in the same upstairs bedrooms as their grandmothers.
Okay. All well and good. So how do we flashback? Harriet wants to find out about Claire, and Simone writes her grandmother Mirielle (who's still alive at 100!) for details. The backstory is slowly revealed. Fortunately, this is told in good old-fashioned third person past (not via letters, thank goodness). It involves the other two plots - sometimes it's about Mirielle, sometimes it's about Claire. I'd have preferred one POV, but heh.
But even this portion of the novel was slow until about 60% when the tension mounted. I just was not interested in the modern day character's angst and commentary. I think you could skip the Harriet passages altogether and still enjoy the novel. But evidently this is the trend today. Plus, Harriet (and the author herself, from what she said in the afterword) got stuck on the idea of inherited trauma (as a motivating driver behind the MC's search for meaning) which I thought distracted from the story.
I'd recently read another flashback/three-character plotted WW2 novel called Across the Winding River by Aimie K. Runyan which I really enjoyed (4.5 stars) despite its structure, so I'm probably comparing the two books. This one gets 2.5 stars. The narrative time jump device got a bit tiresome and, while the writing was good enough, The Dressmaker's Gift just wasn't that compelling for me. Your mileage may vary - it has over 90,000 ratings (!) and 61% are 5 stars.