The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag
Pub. Date: December 30, 2014
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Ballantine Books!)
Summary: Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires.
Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. Cora’s studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her forever. Determined not to allow Cora to miss her chance at happiness, Etta sews a tiny stitch into Walt’s collar, hoping to give him the courage to confess his feelings to Cora. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry. After Walt is spurred into action, Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.
Genre: Magical Realism, Contemporary
Recommended For: I’m hesitant to recommend this one..perhaps only to those who haven’t read The House at the End of Hope Street?
Earlier in the year I fell hard – and that’s putting it lightly! – for Menna van Praag’s The House at the End of Hope Street. It wasn’t just a favorite for 2014, but a favorite for all time. Naturally when I found out about an upcoming novel I was drooling all over myself and when I received a review copy, I immediately settled in to fall in love with a brand new story. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned..
The Dress Shop of Dreams packs a lot in its pages and, at times, it can be a bit of a story arc overload. Cora is a young scientist working alongside her professor to create plants that can grow without water. As a child, her parents – also scientists – died in a terrible house fire and since then, Cora has thought of little else except carrying on her parents’ dream of eradicating world hunger. Her beloved grandmother, Etta, owns a tiny dress shop in town, but it is far unlike any clothing shop imaginable. With a few quick stitches, Etta weaves magic inside the clothes, a tiny boost of confidence or courage and it’s this courage she provides Walt, gently pushing him to finally (finally!) confess his feelings for Cora. The two grew up together and since they were children Walt has been madly in love with her. Etta’s plans backfire, however, and the confession quickly goes south, leading to multiple misunderstandings. Walt decides it’s finally time to move on and meet someone who can return his love, Cora delves deeper into her parents’ death, and Etta accepts a fifty-year-old truth.
The Dress Shop of Dreams broke my heart – and not in a good way. There’s just so much going on here and, to be honest, I didn’t care for most of it. If just one or two story lines had been cut the entire novel could have been far more fleshed out, but as it stands, these characters didn’t receive nearly enough attention as their stories warranted.
I didn’t care for Cora at all. I think she was meant to be quirky. Instead, she comes off as odd and, for the majority of the novel, cold and even heartless. Her entire life has been dedicated to science, to facts. She looks down on people for enjoying fiction novels (if she’s going to read novels for pleasure, she’ll delve into a biography of a prominent female scientist, thank you very much). She feels love is a silly emotion – especially when there’s SCIENCE to be done. I could relate to her counting as a coping mechanism, holding onto numbers as a way to calm down, but that’s it. There was nothing likable about this girl and Walt can do much better if you ask me.
There are side plots involving a police officer and his recent divorce from his wife. Henry is able to tell when people are lying (which makes him great at his job) and he knows his ex-wife still loves him, but cannot understand why she wanted out of the marriage. After twenty years of not questioning her parents’ death, Cora wants to have the case reopened and Henry automatically knows there was more to it than what the original report said. There’s a man working for the radio station where Walt has taken a night position reading novels for a program. Walt’s voice is silky smooth and lonely housewives start sending in letters. Walt refuses to even look at the letters, he only has eyes for Cora. So what does Dylan do? Why he responds of course! He replies back but not as himself. No, he signs the letters with Walt’s name (all the while keeping it a secret from Walt). A year after marrying her husband, Millie found herself a widow. Ten years later she’s finally ready to open her heart to love once more and meets Walt. She also wrote him an innocent fan letter, but these two lives become messy: she enjoys her time with Walt, but the letters (written BY Dylan AS Walt) leave her feeling something else entirely. Sebastian is a tired priest who lost his faith decades ago. Prior to taking his vows, he fell in love and has been yearning to see Etta these past fifty years. The Dress Shop of Dreams also throws in some betrayal (of all sorts!), a secret baby, and alcoholism. I couldn’t keep up with any of it.
When the end does come around, it’s so poorly executed I felt ripped off. It’s hard to believe this novel came from the same writer as The House at the End of Hope Street! In fact, were it not for a cameo from one of Hope Street‘s characters, I honestly would have assumed the two books were written by completely different authors. The Dress Shop of Dreams might enchant a newcomer to Magical Realism, but reading this after having experienced the magic of The House at the End of Hope Street, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth. This book was a huge letdown.