Book Title and Author: The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson
Publication Date and Publisher: December 31, 2018 by William Morrow Paperbacks
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 400 pages
Buy on Amazon.com
Date Read: November 26, 2018 (e-arc)
“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: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.
Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and Holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?
With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.
I admit that I requested The Gown because I was struck by that stunning cover and the title! I’m admittedly an enormous anglophile and lover of the British monarchy so when I saw the picture of the then Princess Elizabeth in her gorgeous wedding gown, I knew this book would blow me away. Did it ever! But not for any of the reasons that I thought it would! I expected to mostly read about the young lovestruck princess and her handsome soon to be husband but instead, Jennifer Robson has carefully crafted a very accurate, detailed, engrossing, and often poignant novel about the lives of three fascinating women–one living in 2016 and the other two living post-World War II in 1947.
The novel is told from the different viewpoints of the three very incredible young women and Robson skillfully intertwines their stories together into one beautifully depicted and outstanding story of family, love, loss, pain, but most of all the importance of friendships and the amazing power of resilience during difficult times.
In 2016, Heather Mackenzie’s beloved Nan, Ann, has just died and left her a box filled with lovely, embroidered flower motifs. As far as she knows, her Nan couldn’t sew, so how did she have such gorgeous embroideries in her possession? Heather, a journalist, knows there is a mystery behind the embroidered flowers and about her Nan’s past which she knows so very little, so she begins to research both.
As Heather begins to unravel her grandmother’s secrets, she is shocked to discover the embroidered motifs match the ones on Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding gown from 1947. Not only that, she finds old pictures that suggest her Nan worked for Norman Hartnell, Britain’s leading couturier and designer of the Queen’s wedding dress, and that she was friends with famous artist and Holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin. Heather’s discoveries take her on a journey from Toronto to London where she learns about her Nan’s past with the help of a new friend who helps her connect with someone special from Ann’s old life.
In 1947, London is still reeling and recovering from WWII. Ann Hughes has lost everyone she’s loved to either the war or sickness and is completely alone in the world. She’s a proud, smart, kind young woman and has been working as an embroiderer at Norman Hartnell’s Mayfair fashion house since she was a very young girl. She’s extremely talented and now one of the top embroiderers at the shop. Still, she’s lonely with no family or close friends, and money is very tight since rationing is still a part of British life even two years after the war, yet Ann doesn’t complain and makes do with what she has.
Miriam Dassin newly immigrates to London in 1947 from Paris where she lost her entire family to Nazi persecution during the war. She’s a brilliant artist and embroiderer with references from Christian Dior, so its no wonder that Mr. Hartnell immediately hires her and she’s put to work alongside Ann, who she becomes good friends with and soon becomes Ann’s roommate. However, Miriam is still haunted by what she endured during her imprisonment at Ravensbrück and is terrified to tell anyone, even Ann, because she is frightened of anyone knowing she is a Jew.
The announcement of the Princess’ engagement and Hartnell’s commission to design and create her wedding dress is very exciting for all the seamstresses and embroiderers at Hartnell’s! Both Ann and Miriam are given the job to embroider the most important and delicate parts of the dress and the train, not only an honor but a job they must never talk about with anyone since the dress design must remain secret until the Princess’ wedding day!
The meticulous research and attention to detail in The Gown makes this book well worth the read. Any historical fiction worth reading should be well researched, and Robson raised the bar here. I love how real characters and facts are interwoven with her fictional ones, and it was amazing to read about how the dressmakers worked so hard to create the Queen’s famous and oh, so gorgeous wedding dress! I go gaga over these gowns, but I don’t think that I’ve ever once stopped to think about the work that has gone into making one of them! It’s amazing how hard the work was and how dedicated these women were in not only making this gown but keeping the gown’s design secret from spies and journalists who were offering bribes in exchange for the dress’ pattern-I didn’t realize they had crazed paparazzi types back then! Very crazy!
I love historical fiction, and The Gown is truly an excellent work of historical fiction. It captured me from the very first page and never let go. As I already said, it wasn’t what I expected and for that, I’m so very glad because it was so much more. I loved the friendships that Robson depicts in the novel because they are meaningful and true. For me, she shows how women’s friendships are meant to be trustworthy, healing, nurturing, and to lift each other up instead of using and hurting one another, and I loved that so much.
Obviously, I’m highly recommending this book! You don’t have to love the royal family to enjoy this one since they only play a very minor role. If you like historical fiction, then this is a beautiful novel that will sweep you away with its affecting story of courage and friendship. It publishes December 31, 2018!
**Thank you Edelweiss and William Morrow for an ARC to read in exchange for my fair and honest review. **