March 16, 2011 · 8:51 am
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.
A review copy was received from the publisher.
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December 15, 2010 · 6:36 pm
The Island: A Novel by Elin Hilderbrand (Unabridged Hachette audio book on 13 CDs; $34.98)
When the going gets tough for Chess Cousins, she and three other East Coast ladies retreat to Tuckernuck Island off the coast of Nantucket. These ladies are not just anyone; they are Chess’s mother Birdie Cousins, aunt Ida Bishop and sister Tate Cousins. Tough doesn’t begin to describe Chess’s situation as her recently dumped fiance has died in a rock climbing incident and she has walked out on her editorial job at a prestigious culinary magazine. To make matters worse, Chess decides to cut her shining golden hair and shave her head.
Birdie masterminds their trip to the family vacation home on Tuckernuck. The house lacks hot water, electricity, and television and cell phone reception. After a 13-year family hiatus from vacationing on the property, the ladies come together for the month of July. The plan is to allow Chess the solitude and support she needs to get beyond her depression.
Author Hilderbrand present a masterfully simple story that expands as the days on the island are counted off, one by one. The cadence of the story, narrated by Denice Hicks, is one of calm repetition that includes descriptions of the locale, conversations, meal preparation and the introspective thoughts of the ladies. The activities they perform daily become part of the story line. There are bursts of emotion that erupt from the interactions of the characters. The narrator balances the dulcet tones of Birdie with the harsh outbursts from Tate and Chess. India’s throaty voice is a sharp contrast to those of her sister and nieces. This is only right as she is a worldly woman who is herself the widow.
The key male character is Barrett Lee, a golden hunk of a man in his thirties, who is the caretaker of the house. He brings the food, wine, ice and clean laundry daily from Nantucket. Although Nantucket is only a half-mile away by boat, it might as well be on another continent. Both Barrett and his father Chuck before him have captured the hearts and imaginations of the respective generations of sisters.
The sense of isolation felt by Birdie, India and Tate serves to prompt them to deal with their own issues even though they are supposed to be assisting Chess. There is a sense of dancing around each one’s life situation, avoiding the whole truth, shying away and then revisiting them again and again. Each revisit brings more of the backstories to the fore. The complexity of the emotions and fears brought on by the need for someone to love is flavored with loving kindness, frustration, self-awareness and anxiety.
In a sense, the book is a confessional. The four points of view on love and loss, sibling rivalry and what it means to be loved are beautifully portrayed in this multi-generational saga.
Highly recommended, and, yes, it’s a fine example of chick lit.
This review was written by Ruta Arellano. A copy of the audio book was provided by Hachette Audio.
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