It truly takes a gifted author to write a historical fiction that not only pulls at your heartstrings but also makes you feel like you are back in that time living it through the characters. The Gown by Jennifer Robson is truly a gift that I enjoyed immensely.
This book is about survival.
While there are many themes that the author expertly covers, survival was the one that stuck with me till the very last page.
There are many books that are written about the war or during the war, but The Gown focuses on the aftermath. It focuses on how people pick up the pieces of their lives and rebuild brick by brick. It is about friendship, love, creation, PTSD and a person’s legacy. The Gown takes us on this journey as each of the main characters experience life altering events that take them to places they would have never imagined.
(photo from @khanlibrary)
“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding
London 1947: A brutal winter, rationing of resources and tragic memories leaves many people feeling the harsh aftermath of World War II. Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin are embroiderers working for Norman Hartell, the famous designer who has been chosen to make the wedding gown for Princess Elizabeth. Ann and Miriam, each weighed down by memories of their past, set to work on the gown for the royal wedding. They become closer, forging a friendship that will help them both during their darkest times.
Toronto 2016: Heather Mackenzie is mourning the death of her grandmother. While helping her mother go through her Nan’s things, she discovers a box with her name on it containing embroidered flowers that resemble the flowers on Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown. Heather knows very little about her Nan’s past, but with some digging she discovers a clue that leads her to believe that her Nan once helped create the Queen’s dress. Heather boards a plane to London in search of the answers to her questions.
I always wondered how the people living during this time were able to rebuild their lives after the brutality of WWII. How difficult it must have been for the survivors to carry the knowledge that their loved ones had died in concentration camps? How did the world heal? The Gown shows us that friendship can be the foundation of survival and moving on. The author takes us through what post-war London would have looked like through the eyes of fictional characters Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin. We read about their long workdays as they stitched and embroidered the gown for the royal wedding. As we read along, we see a beautiful friendship developing between these two strong women.
The theme of survival guilt is also explored in this story as we are shown how the survivors feel guilt about roaming free in the new world while their families were brutalized and murdered. This kind of guilt is portrayed expertly in the story and it shows how breaking down the walls people put up to protect themselves and letting someone in can be the first step into acceptance of the past and moving forward.
“It was hard, at times to ignore the disquieting voices that told her she was fooling herself, that she would empty herself into this misguided project, and when she finished, it would be to find that no one was interested. That no one on earth, apart from her, cared to know what had happened to those she loved” – Jennifer Robson
Another theme that is beautifully depicted is how art and creation have their own healing powers, not just for the creators but also for those viewing the art. The royal wedding was held during a time of despair, as if to give a spark of light to the nation that was shrouded in darkness for far too long. The Gown would become a piece of art that captures the interest of the onlookers, but also provided it’s own kind of therapy to Miriam and Ann as they worked tirelessly on it.
The Gown was a truly breathtaking book to read. Everything was so descriptive that it felt like I could see the scenes in my head. I could almost see Ann and Miriam hunched over their frames in their coveralls stitching the elaborate flower star designs onto the gown. I could feel the emotions they were feeling. I could feel Ann’s heartbreak, Miriam’s guilt and Heather’s loss. I also enjoyed the way the story jumped from past to present and how we learn details of Ann and Miriam’s lives through Heather’s search for answers. This book had a lot of heart and it pulled many tears from me.
In many ways, this book reminds us that when elaborate gowns are made, so much of the credit goes to the designer and hardly any goes towards the ones who worked on the embroidery. I have a newfound appreciation for all those dedicated souls who put all their time and love into the delicate details that are what makes a dress beautiful. Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to Google images of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown to admire the embroidery.
Check out The Gown at Chapters Indigo.