The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean (5 Spot; $13.99; 304 pages)
Don’t be fooled by the naive feeling that permeates this novel at the outset. The main character is twenty-year-old Dora Winston and her perspective on life shapes the story. Dora, an orphan, was raised by her beloved paternal grandmother, Mimi Winston, who is a widow. Their relationship affects the way Dora sees the world and is the basis for her intensely personal sense of values. Dora’s parents died in an automobile crash when she was just a baby. So Mimi is her whole family.
The reader is introduced to Dora as she is rushing to the hospital where Mimi is being treated for a stroke. The stroke renders Mimi helpless and her doctors are on alert for any signs of consciousness. The circumstances of Mimi’s stroke could be seen as devastating and yet, author McKean somehow manages to morph the story into a classic example of catastrophe = opportunity.
Dora steps up and chooses to keep her grandmother’s vintage women’s clothing store open for business, taking time away in the evenings to visit the hospital. The clothing is not used in the sense of secondhand; rather, each dress has a provenance. Although the novel is not a mystery, there is a mysterious quality to McKean’s portrayal of the characters. This reviewer wanted to know more about them and their lives. There is a wide range for these characters which sets up good contrasts among contemporaries such as Dora and her cousin Tyffannee or Mimi and Gabby, her housemate.
Through trial and error Dora learns to maintain an open mind permitting her to see the world around her in an unfiltered manner. She compares her inner hopes and dreams, or the lack thereof, with what’s actually possible. Due to the wide variety of ages portrayed, McKean keeps her story from being typecast as a young adult book. The maturity exhibited by Dora is a refreshing change from the self-centered way many twenty-somethings appear to behave on TV and in the movies.
This review was written by Ruta Arellano. A review copy was received from the publisher.