I was lucky enough to be sent an ARC copy of this a little while ago, but have found it difficult to get enough time to read it. Within a few pages it was clear I’ve been missing a treat. I absolutely loved this novel about family secrets, growing up and dress-making. We follow our narrator Flo, as she conducts a funeral for her grandmother. Her mother has been a life long traveller with wanderlust in her bones, so her grandmother’s home in Wandsworth is the only real home she has known. Flo is struggling under the weight of a grief she shares with her husband Seamus, so much so that their marriage has fallen apart at the seams. She is sinking into a depression when she decides to look for her grandmother’s old sewing machine. Instead she finds a box of 1960s dressmaking patterns and as she searches through she finds each packet has a photo or a postcard, often depicting the same woman beautifully dressed in the dress from the pattern. One photo shows this woman at the train station with Flo’s grandmother and close knit set of friends. Flo is intrigued by Nancy, this beautiful woman, who clearly knew her grandmother so well, but is never spoken of in the family. What is this big secret and why was this woman travelling through Europe? Inspired by one of the dresses Flo finds some fabric and spends all night putting together the full skirted day dress. For the first time in months Flo can feel a cloud lifting. What if she were to follow Nancy’s journey -wearing her wardrobe- to find out more about her and why she never came home?
This book lured me in immediately with its honesty and charm. I truly enjoyed the two narratives and different destinations on Flo and Nancy’s journeys, taken 50 years apart. Flo finds that Nancy was travelling as companion to a young lady, the daughter of a wealthy couple called Pamela. Pam is too old for a governess but too young to be left to her own devices. She is resentful of Nancy’s presence at first and doesn’t see why she needs babysitting. However, they start to bond. Nancy watches the criticism Pam receives from her stepmother. It covers everything from her attitude, to her weight and how she carries herself. Nancy can see that really she just needs a friend, someone who’s on her side and gives her some positivity and praise. This relationship becomes vital later in the novel, when Nancy discovers the truth of the dynamic in this family. Everything is going to change for Pam, and perhaps Nancy can be the constant in her life. Realising at the end of the book how this character fits into the present was so very satisfying.
The settings and fashion are beautifully described that I could picture every place and every outfit in my mind’s eye. I do a little bit of sewing, nothing as advanced as Nancy or Flo, so I had a great deal of respect for their work. I love fashion so this was an absolute gift for me, seeing how fashion transforms someone makes me smile. I love that it helps people express their individuality and to be more confident. The fact that for Flo it’s vintage fashion is even better. We dressed up more in the 1950s/60s and I felt the author truly expressed that era in Nancy’s clothes. I enjoy nothing more than vintage shopping with my stepdaughters and often wear 1950s styles myself so I understood how Flo felt putting on clothing she had made. It’s almost as if the clothing change, as well as the different surroundings made Flo question her life and explore who she was a little more. We are all different on holiday and when working with women who have low confidence, I often ask what they enjoy on holiday and tell them to take a little of that holiday spirit into everyday life. For Flo. while she’s travelling she gets to think about what’s gone wrong in her relationship. We are privy to her innermost thoughts and feelings and can slowly piece together what has happened between her and her partner Seamus. The break gives her space, and a bit of perspective in the shape of a friend she was told to look up when she gets to Paris. Will this, slightly more sophisticated, man make Nancy rethink her relationship and move on or will it help her realise that Seamus is still the one for her?
This is a great second lockdown read because it made me feel like I’d been on holiday myself! It also let me spend a little bit of time in Venice, which was a bonus considering I’d had to cancel my honeymoon there in the spring. It deals with the issue of losing a child and how heart wrenching that is. The author deals well with this difficult topic, showing the stigma of being an unmarried mother in the 1950s while still being able to keep the story light, which is an extremely difficult tightrope to walk. Different ways of grieving are also explored, and how hard it can be if a couple grieve in different ways or at different rates. The key to everything in this book is good honest communication and not keeping secrets within families. I think the difference between the 1950s and our more open, confessional society is well handled. I enjoyed this one so much I bought a finished copy for my bookshelves and I’m sure it’s one I’ll dip back into from time to time. This is a lovely story, full of likeable characters, stunning locations and beautiful fashion. I heartily recommend it.