Review: The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Review: The Gown by Jennifer RobsonThe Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on December 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the internationally bestselling author of Somewhere in France comes an enthralling historical novel about one of the most famous wedding dresses of the twentieth century—Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown—and the fascinating women who made it.

“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.

My Review:

Wedding dress of Elizabeth II. Photo taken on her wedding day, 20 November 1947

This is not about Elizabeth. Instead, it is a story of friendship, and family. And it is a story about the making of what is now a historical artifact, but was, once upon a time not so very long ago, a dress in which countless young women invested their hopes and dreams.

That one of those young women became the Queen of England is not the point of this story. Instead, this story is about two of the women, representing so many more, who worked tirelessly to make not just Elizabeth’s dreams but their own come true.

Even if theirs, at least, turn out to be rather different from what they expected.

There is a 21st century framing story wrapped around this gown, but the purpose of the frame is to take the reader back into the lives of two women in 1947, Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, one English and one French, who have both been scarred by the war – one more than the other.

And who were equally marked by the dark and dismal years after, but again, one more than the other.

Ann and Miriam meet in the embroidery room of the designer Norman Hartnell, whose signature was his use of embroidery in the gowns he designed for the upper crust of English society, particularly the royal family.

So we are there with Ann and Miriam as they work together on one of the studio’s great creations, and as they survive the intense furor that surrounds its secrecy. An intensity that costs them both so much.

As the story begins, we are at the end. Ann has died, and left her granddaughter Heather a mysterious legacy – a box of intricate embroidery samples – but no clues. Ann was extremely reticent about her life before she moved to Canada in 1948, and her family knows nothing about who she was, where she came from or why she emigrated. And that’s the way she wanted it.

But the mystery intrigues Heather. When she discovers that the beautiful samples in the box match the designs on Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown, she is determined to discover whether her grandmother was one of the women who worked on it – and why she kept it a secret.

Heather’s search leads her back to the past – and into her own future.

Escape Rating A: It’s not the framing story that really grabs the reader – it’s what’s within that frame. Heather’s search is interesting for what it reveals, not for itself. But what it reveals is an incredible story with light and color, depth and heartbreak.

Miriam and Ann come from entirely different backgrounds. Ann is as English as the Tudor roses that she embroiders on the gown. Miriam, on the other hand, is a transplant. A refugee from Paris, a young woman who spent the Occupation hiding in plain sight from the Nazis until she was finally caught as a member of the Resistance. She was fortunate that the Nazis never discovered that she was also a Jew. Unlike the rest of her family, Miriam survived the war. But could not make herself remain in France and found herself in the studio of Norman Hartnell, working beside Ann.

As they work side by side on the gown, and eventually become friends, roommates and sisters-of-the-heart, the paths of their lives meet and eventually switch. Ann is forced to leave behind the work she loves and go to Canada. She never takes up the needle again – or at least not the embroidery needle. Miriam, after so much tragedy in her early life, finds happiness and eventually fame.

But the two never forget each other, even though they never meet again. That Ann sends Heather to Miriam brings the story beautifully full circle.

This is a story that is all about the feels. The desperation of the post-war austerity years, the fast friendship between two women who are otherwise alone in the world, the joy of doing fulfilling work and the pain of hard decisions.

And it’s as beautiful as the gown it celebrates.

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Review: Goodnight from London by Jennifer Robson

Review: Goodnight from London by Jennifer RobsonGoodnight from London by Jennifer Robson
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 2nd 2017
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From USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Robson—author of Moonlight Over Paris and Somewhere in France—comes a lush historical novel that tells the fascinating story of Ruby Sutton, an ambitious American journalist who moves to London in 1940 to report on the Second World War, and to start a new life an ocean away from her past.
In the summer of 1940, ambitious young American journalist Ruby Sutton gets her big break: the chance to report on the European war as a staff writer for Picture Weekly newsmagazine in London. She jumps at the chance, for it's an opportunity not only to prove herself, but also to start fresh in a city and country that know nothing of her humble origins. But life in besieged Britain tests Ruby in ways she never imagined.
Although most of Ruby's new colleagues welcome her, a few resent her presence, not only as an American but also as a woman. She is just beginning to find her feet, to feel at home in a country that is so familiar yet so foreign, when the bombs begin to fall.
As the nightly horror of the Blitz stretches unbroken into weeks and months, Ruby must set aside her determination to remain an objective observer. When she loses everything but her life, and must depend upon the kindness of strangers, she learns for the first time the depth and measure of true friendship—and what it is to love a man who is burdened by secrets that aren’t his to share.
Goodnight from London, inspired in part by the wartime experiences of the author’s own grandmother, is a captivating, heartfelt, and historically immersive story that readers are sure to embrace.

My Review:

Reading this book gave me an unending earworm for the song “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” from My Fair Lady. This is a bit odd in multiple directions – the Broadway musical didn’t premiere until 11 years after the end of World War II, and the setting for the musical, Edwardian London, occurs 30+ years before the start of World War II.

But the book was definitely “loverly”. Or at least lovely. It reminded me of all the reasons why I love Jennifer Robson’s work.

Unlike her previous novels, Somewhere in France, After the War is Over and Moonlight Over Paris, this one does not deal directly with the Great War and its aftermath. Unless, of course, one considers World War II as part of the aftermath of World War I. Which it certainly was.

And for readers hoping to start afresh with this marvelous author, Goodnight from London does not follow the other books directly, as they loosely did with each other. Except, again, in so far as WW2 was a fairly direct consequence of WW1.

Instead, Goodnight from London follows the adventures of young American journalist Ruby Sutton, a self-made woman if there ever was one. After a brief but illustrious stint at an American weekly magazine, Ruby receives an unexpected offer that she can’t resist. Everyone knows that war is coming, and the U.S. is hoping to stay well clear of the mess in Europe.

But England will be right in the thick of it, and one of the London weekly papers is looking for a young, female, American reporter who is willing to come to London and write the war. For Ruby it’s a dream job, she’ll get to be where the action is, and she’ll get to learn her craft while having something important to write about. She has no ties in America, no family, almost no life outside her work, so she’s the perfect writer to send to London.

And in the thick of the Blitz, she finds everything she didn’t know she was looking for. Not just the chance to write important stories, but also the opportunity to find a family, a sense of belonging and home, and finally, love.

But more than anything else, Goodnight from London is the story of an intrepid young journalist who finds herself in the middle of the great story of her times, and runs with it. Sometimes she’s down but never out. She never gives up, she never gives in and she never surrenders.. And she always gets the story.

Even, at last, her own.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things that I love about this author’s work is the way that she puts her intrepid heroines in fascinating, real-life circumstances and dangers, and then lets them work. The story here is Ruby’s reporting of the war, both on the homefront and eventually on the front lines. It’s also about her involvement in the real life of London during the war, living through the Blitz, losing all her possessions and becoming part of the fabric of life, while London becomes part of her.

We see her work, we experience her triumphs and her tragedies, we feel her setbacks. But the story is about her experience. While this is a historical novel, it is not historical romance, although Ruby does find love in the end.

It feels like the point of the book is the work, and the happy ever after is her reward. The romance is not the point of the story, and it shouldn’t be. The world was in dire straits. Although life went on, her work was too important to put on hold in the hopes that her prince might come. Or however one wants to put that.

This is a story where it felt more realistic that her career came first, and it is one of the few historic periods where that is realistically true.

It helps a lot that Ruby is a very likable protagonist. She’s both self-made and self-motivated. She’s doing her best (and occasionally her worst) to put her past behind her. The secret almost costs her everything, and that was the one part of the story that didn’t live up to how much I loved the rest. Other readers may feel differently.

But that one “bobble” was not enough to dim my enjoyment of the book. I loved the way that Ruby’s personal story interwove with the history that we know. We got to see World War II London and especially the Blitz through her eyes, and the perspective brought this reader right into her world and to the story.

As I read Goodnight from London, it reminded me a bit of The Race for Paris by Meg Clayton, which is also about female World War II correspondents. I liked The Race for Paris but the soap opera of the protagonists’ trainwreck love triangle took a bit out of the story. Goodnight from London is much, much better.

Goodnight from London is, as I said at the beginning, a very lovely book. Read it and you’ll see.

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Review: Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, Lauren Willig, Marci Jefferson

Review: Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, Lauren Willig, Marci JeffersonFall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, Lauren Willig, Marci Jefferson
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on March 1st 2016
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On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month . . .
November 11, 1918. After four long, dark years of fighting, the Great War ends at last, and the world is forever changed. For soldiers, loved ones, and survivors, the years ahead stretch with new promise, even as their hearts are marked by all those who have been lost.
As families come back together, lovers reunite, and strangers take solace in each other, everyone has a story to tell.
In this moving, unforgettable collection, nine top historical fiction authors share stories of love, strength, and renewal as hope takes root in a fall of poppies.
Featuring:
Jessica Brockmole
Hazel Gaynor
Evangeline Holland
Marci Jefferson
Kate Kerrigan
Jennifer Robson
Heather Webb
Beatriz Williams
Lauren Willig

My Review:

There’s something about World War I that seems unbearably sad, even more so than World War II. I think it’s the sense that even though the war itself isn’t as simple or as clear-cut as the next war, there is so much more that died in that fall of poppies. So many different hopes, dreams and expectations. World War I changed the world in so many ways, where World War II seems like a continuation of a process that had already started with that first “World War”.

The stories in this anthology all center around World War I, and particularly around November 11, 1918, that singular moment when the war ended and everyone was left to look at the wreckage left behind and figure out how to pick up the pieces. Or even what pieces to pick up.

All of the stories in this collection are excellent, but there were four that particularly spoke to me, each in a different way.

Something Worth Landing For by Jessica Brockmole is a sweet love story. A young American airman comes to the rescue of a weeping Frenchwoman outside a doctor’s office. He has just been cleared to fly, and she has just discovered that she is pregnant. When the doctor begins berating the young woman about the baby, Wes decides to help her. At first, all his thinking is about getting her away from the doctor’s slightly slimy clutches. But as Wes and Victoire talk, he offers to marry her. He expects to die, a not unreasonable expectation for WWI flyers, and their marriage will leave her with his name and his widow’s pension. He gets someone on the ground who will send him letters, and she gets respectability. But as they write to each other, they discover they have a surprising chance at much more than either of them ever hoped for.

All for the Love of You by Jennifer Robson is also a sweet love story, but it is a story about the enduring power of love, and its ability to overcome all obstacles, even time, distance and injury. It is guaranteed to give you an earworm for the song.

The Record Set Right by Lauren Willig will remind readers of Out of Africa and Circling the Sun, even as its story deals with two wounded survivors looking back at their war, and the lives that followed, 60 years after the Armistice that both brought them together and tore them apart. It’s a story that asks questions about how responsible we are for the lies we tell, and for the lies we believe. Now that the truth is revealed, it is much too late to change the past. But in spite of the betrayal that led them to the lives they had, are they better off dreaming of what might have been? Or were they robbed of the life they should have had together by a lie told by a selfish man who loved them both? They’ll never know and neither will we.

And last but not least for this reader, The Photograph by Kate Kerrigan. The armistice in this book is the same as all the others, November 11, 1918, but the war is not World War I. Instead it is set in Ireland, where the Easter Rising of 1916 has led to outright rebellion. So while Irish troops are fighting as part of the British Army in the trenches, back home in Ireland the British Army is attempting to keep down the Irish Republican Army. This story takes place both in the present day and in 1918, as one family confronts its past and its future. This story is lovely and sad, but ends with hope for the future.

Escape Rating A-: All of the stories in this collection have their moments, and they all serve their theme well, sometimes in surprisingly different ways. As with all collections, not all of them spoke to this reader, but the ones that did echo in my thoughts like the sound of artillery over the trenches.

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Review: Moonlight over Paris by Jennifer Robson

Review: Moonlight over Paris by Jennifer RobsonMoonlight over Paris by Jennifer Robson
Formats available: paperback, ebook, large print, audiobook
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on January 19th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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USA Today and internationally bestselling author Jennifer Robson takes readers to 1920s Paris in an enthralling new historical novel that tells the riveting story of an English lady who trades in her staid aristocratic life for the mesmerizing salons and the heady world of the Lost Generation.
It’s the spring of 1924, and Lady Helena Montagu-Douglas-Parr has just arrived in France. On the mend after a near-fatal illness, she is ready to embrace the restless, heady allure of the City of Lights. Her parents have given her one year to live with her eccentric aunt in Paris and Helena means to make the most of her time. She’s quickly drawn into the world of the Lost Generation and its circle of American expatriates, and with their encouragement, she finds the courage to pursue her dream of becoming an artist.
One of those expats is Sam Howard, a journalist working for the Chicago Tribune. Irascible, plain-spoken, and scarred by his experiences during the war, Sam is simply the most fascinating man she has ever met. He’s also entirely unsuitable.
As Paris is born anew, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of the Great War, Helena realizes that she, too, is changing. The good girl she once was, so dutiful and obedient, so aware of her place in the world, is gone forever. Yet now that she has shed her old self, who will she become, and where, and with whom, does she belong…?

My Review:

after the war is over by jennifer robsonMoonlight Over Paris is the follow up to the author’s lovely After the War is Over (reviewed here). Which was itself a follow up to the marvelous Somewhere in France (reviewed here).

But don’t let those antecedents keep you from reading Moonlight Over Paris. The link between each book is one single character who was neglected in the previous story, and becomes the main character of the next. It is far from necessary to start at the beginning, each book stands completely on its own.

The stories are all about World War I, its aftermath, and its effects on the lives of a small group of younger members of the English upper crust. And the heroine of Moonlight Over Paris is the upper-crustiest of them all. But the world that she explores is the one where her birthright matters least – Lady Helena Montagu-Douglas-Parr, daughter of an Earl, takes herself off to Paris in the mid-1920s, the high point of the Lost Generation between the wars, where everyone who was anyone in the arts community went not just to Paris, but specifically to Montparnasse the center of both the artistic and expat communities.

It was a heady, golden time, where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas held court and drank up their excesses, and where Sylvia Beach ran the best English-language bookstore in Paris (Shakespeare and Company) and published outre classics like James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Lady Helena comes to Paris as Helena Parr, to study art in one of Paris many art academies. She has talent, but just how much talent is always a question. And it’s a question that she has decided to answer for herself.

Her fiance came back from the war in 1919, shell-shocked and wounded, and begged her to end their engagement. He was drowning in his depression, and he’d fallen in love with someone else. Neither of them reckoned on five years of continuous social opprobrium. Helena was seens as a heartless woman who threw over a wounded veteran, when the truth was otherwise. She’s frozen out of all social engagements, and in her mid-20s is firmly on the shelf.

After a near fatal bout of scarlet fever, Helena determines to finally live her life, and not merely exist. So Paris, art school, and a life outside of her social circle.

Mostly outside. The conventions that restrict her life can’t be completely ignored, so unlike her fellow art students, she lives with her wealthy Aunt in a small palace. None of which keep her tyrannical art teacher from berating her at every turn.

But through endless lessons and endless critiques of her craft, Helena makes friends, makes a life, and falls in love. Only to discover that the struggling newspaper writer she has fallen for is part of the American upper crust, and of the life she left behind.

somewhere in france by jennifer robsonEscape Rating B+: I enjoyed Moonlight Over Paris, and was just as wrapped up in this story as I was in its predecessors. But Moonlight seems like a smaller and more intimate story than either of the first two books.

We see this world from Helena’s perspective, and the action follows her. While it is not first person singular, we see directly into her mind through letters she writes to her sister back in England.

While I liked Helena as a protagonist, her situation just wasn’t as interesting as the previous books. Possibly this is because the war is over, and the Lost Generation was doing a good job of losing itself in excess. The stakes seem smaller.

As with the previous books, the strength in this story is in the relationships that Helena forges with her fellow students, Etienne, Mathilde and Daisy, and her increasing closeness to her Aunt Agnes. It is also refreshing that instead of being the enforcer of morality, Aunt Agnes is a free spirit (also marvelously free with money) who encourages Helena at every turn.

While this story is told from Helena’s perspective, I wish we had a little more depth in the way that the friendships develop. On the one hand, the whole point of Helena’s year in Paris is to become someone new, but on that other hand, her friends represent wildly different lives. Etienne is the artistic genius of the group. He is also homosexual, and provides a tiny window into what his life is like. Mathilde has a child and a wounded-veteran husband at home, and works two jobs to make ends meet while still going to art school. Daisy is the person Helena almost was, a rich, protected young woman who is trying both to please her father and be herself. And is losing the battle, just as Helena was until she came to Paris.

Based on events in the story, I expect the next book to be Daisy’s. I hope so, because there is way more story there to tell.

Helena falls in love with a struggling newspaperman, Sam Howard. The tentative way that their relationship builds makes for a very slow and only slightly burning romance. And that’s okay, because the heart of this story is Helena’s transformation, and not her love life.

But there’s a big misunderstandammit in the way of Sam and Helena’s future, and the way it is concealed and finally revealed felt a bit contrived. Your mileage may vary.

And then there’s the setting. Paris in the 1920s. Paris in the Jazz Age. The Paris of the thriving, artistic expat community of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Toklas and Beach. Paris in the “Crazy Years”. There is a point where the visits to and from the famous and infamous felt like name-dropping rather than an integral part of the story. That Helena gets a dress designed by Vionnet is one thing. That Sam’s work as a newspaperman brings them into contact with Hemingway and Stein made sense. But the dinner with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald just didn’t add to Helena’s story. For this reader, straw met camel’s back.

And it’s not that this kind of thing can’t be done well. I loved The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King, which explores Paris in the same period and also brings in most of the famous characters. For this reader it just did a better job of using them to set mood and move the story along.

That being said, I still enjoyed Moonlight Over Paris a great deal. It was interesting to see Jazz Age Paris from a perspective of someone other than the famous expats, and explore a bit of what it was like in that era. The strong portraits of supportive friendship that run through all of Robson’s fiction make the reader feel part of Helena’s circle of friends.

And the happy ending was breathless and sweet in equal measure.

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