With more time at home on my hands over the last few months, I decided to reconnect with my love of historical fiction with Jennifer Robson’s novel, The Gown. My initial hesitation about a novel that follows three people, two in 1940s London and one in 2016 Toronto, quickly dissipated as I got to know each of the characters – Ann, Miriam and Heather.
The book centers around Ann Hughes, a London seamstress who works at the famous English design studio of Norman Hartnell. She meets Miriam Dassin, a French emigre and holocaust survivor, when she joins Hartnell’s team of seamstresses. After asking Miriam to move into her home in Barkley, the two become fast friends as they work on Queen Elizabeth’s (then Princess Elizabeth’s) wedding dress. Slowly, Ann comes to discover more about Miriam’s life in France, while they both meet potential suitors of higher rank. While Miriam’s love life slowly blossoms, Ann’s turns into a nightmare that will change her destiny and that of her family.
The other plotline involves Heather, Ann’s granddaughter, who upon her Nan’s death, finds a box with her name on it. The box contains the stitches from Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress and virtually no other information. After being put on leave from her job in Toronto, Heather heads to London to find out the truth about her family and their history.
I’ve read a lot of historical fiction in my life, and this book was a wonderful escape from the stresses of life in 2020. While the storylines are obviously conjecture, it was interesting to learn more about life in post-war England and the collective trauma that World War Two had inflicted upon the population. On a personal note, I had lost my grandmother a few weeks before I started this book, and reading a story of recovery after the war helped me connect to her memory.
This novel reads like romance, which was surprising. While expertly researched and gorgeously written, the book also gets a little sappy at a few points. Robson’s character development and intriguing storyline make up for the sometimes-over-the-top language. Even though I was worried about reading three different stories during different time periods, the story flowed extremely well and each chapter left me hungry for more. The strong theme of female friendship present throughout the novel helped me through my grief while I was kept apart from my friends and loved ones.Just as parts of the book read like a romance novel, other parts read like a mystery. With twists and turns throughout the entire novel, The Gown will keep you entertained, intrigued and learning more about the personal difficulties that characterized the mid-twentieth century. If you’re into history and need a little entertainment, check out this book!