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The Secret Lives of Dresses

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 being secondhand; rather, each dress has a unique 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.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Secret Lives of Dresses: A Novel by Erin McKean.

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Running On Empty

She’s Gone Country: A Novel by Jane Porter (5 Spot; $13.99; 384 pages)

Coping with imposed life changes is the main theme for Jane Porter’s new novel, She’s Gone Country.   The central character, Shey Darcy, is an almost-forty-year-old former fashion model whose image appeared in Vogue and in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.   Shey’s glamorous life in New York City is cut short when her husband declares that he’s gay and wants a divorce.  

What follows is a sprint back to Shey’s roots in Texas.   She takes her two sons to live in her mom’s house on a sprawling family-owned ranch in a bid to feel more secure.   This is a tale of growing up to reality and grasping a sense of how to navigate life when the veneer of New York life’s distractions is peeling away.

Author Jane Porter presents the story in a stream of consciousness first person narrative in the present tense.   Shey is stuck in her feelings about the life she has been forced to leave behind.   She dwells on her husband’s betrayal, the trials of motherhood and her very shaky self-image.   Shey’s monologue is often repetitive, and it is a perfect example of self-talk by the mind vs. being in the now, as detailed in Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.   Shey loses her way, her sense of now and she’s stuck trying to cope with her brain chatter.

An odd combination of contrasts crop up throughout the story.   Men are generally described as hunky or highly attractive, and comfortable with old cars and the peeling paint on the Texas ranch house where Shey lives.   Women are depicted less charitably.   Porter describes their actions and fashion choices in a way that is just shy of brutal.

The notion of raising boys is foreign to this reviewer, but Jane Porter is the mother of three boys.   She makes it seem like a lot more work than having girls.   Even though the story is told in the first person, the feelings and actions of the other characters are well-developed.   This is especially true for Shey’s two sons.   Each has his own personality and needs as together they struggle with having been uprooted from post private school city life and plopped down onto a small country setting.

Since this book is clearly of the chic lit genre, it was amazing to this reviewer that the most sympathy and tears were brought out by someone other than the main character – who knew?

This is a most enjoyable read for women of a certain age.   Recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by Hachette Book Group U.S.A.   She’s Gone Country was released by 5 Spot on August 23, 2010.

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