Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review: The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean

What do your clothes say about you? What if they could tell stories of the times you actually wore them? Mine would probably say I am prone to spills and dress like a toddler. But a couple of pieces might tell of evenings out or exotic trips. Mostly though, my clothes wouldn't have terribly interesting stories to tell and no one would mistake them for things with fascinating histories. In The Secret Lives of Dresses though, the vintage dresses in Dora's grandmother Mimi's shop have tales to tell, tales imagined and written by Mimi to suit each dress.

Opening with Dora rushing home from college after her grandmother has suffered a stroke, this is a story of love and grief and finding oneself. Raised by her grandmother because her parents died when she was small, Dora is about to graduate from college, where she has drifted along without a plan. She intends to go to graduate school as much to make herself available to her cute boss at the school coffee shop (as a grad student, he won't date undergrads) as to postpone having to decide what she wants to do with her life when she grows up. Mimi's stroke changes everything. Dora goes home and takes over the vintage dress shop as a way of keeping busy while her grandmother is critical in the hospital. She discovers a real affinity for the shop, tied to it both by her love for her grandmother and by a gift for retail.

Through the shop, Dora meets Cal, a contractor renovating a condo upstairs who is wonderfully kind and understanding about the grief that Dora is feeling as her grandmother's health declines. She also finds a drawer full of secret lives for the dresses on the racks at the store, tales meant to go with the dresses when they are purchased. Never having known about Mimi's writing, she faces all the things that will remain unknown in her life, including anything much about her own parents, about whom Mimi didn't speak. The supporting characters here are quirky and fun, adding light and spunk to the story without taking the focus off of Dora and her journey of self-discovery.

McKean has a feather-light touch, only brushing the reader's emotions gently while still managing to convey the depth of Dora's feelings. The premise of the book is a charming one and plays out just as charmingly in practice. It was hard to not gobble the book down in one greedy sitting but instead to let it flow slowly and steadily. It is a thoroughly modern book but the detailed descriptions of the vintage dresses and their stories give the book a lovely old-fashioned tone in places. Despite the sadness, there's a warm feel of friendliness here. Over all, this is a delightful book and anyone captivated by the idea of dresses having histories will find a small gem in this tale. Characters, plot, setting, tone; it all comes together into a perfectly pleasing whole.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.


  1. The cover is awesome and it sounds like a perfcet beach read.

  2. Sounds like a wonderful premise for a story. Makes me think of Love, Loss, and What I Wore, a delightful and touching illustrated book by Irene Beckerman, now a play.

  3. This book sounds absolutely charming. I'll look it up!


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts