Posted in Random Things Tours

The Black Dress by Deborah Moggach.

I truly enjoyed Deborah Moggach’s last novel The Carer thanks to it’s depiction of family dynamics. She showed the problems common to ‘the middle’ where both children and parents need us in equal measure, but mostly that difficult decision about ‘caring’ for an elderly relative and the compromises we have to make. This novel concentrates more on growing older in the 21st Century with all it’s difficulties and choices to face. More people over 50 are facing huge life changes and are emerging from broken relationships into a world that’s moved on several decades. They face the daunting prospect of internet dating, cat-fishing, swiping right and learning to navigate through it all. I think we all imagine there’s an age where we grow up and become adults. We expect wisdom to set in, the risks and mistakes to be less and for us to be settled in who and where we are. Of course I’ve reached middle age and don’t feel any where near being a real adult. I’ve realised I’m still the same heart on sleeve, leap of faith, in love with love, risk taker that I’ve always been. There’s growth from experience, but my essential character has not changed. However, I identified with Pru, who is weathering this massive life change, then sees a black dress in a charity shop and wonders what if I was someone different for a while?

Pru’s husband has walked out and has set up home in their little holiday cottage by the sea. Her only consolation is her friend Azra, always a little too wild and boho for Pru’s husband’s taste, but a great solace as she contemplates living the rest of her life without her other spoon. To be honest with herself, it’s not really him that she misses. She misses their life together – the past memories of playing on the beach with the children, always having someone next to her in bed, and those in-jokes that they would only get together. Now the bed feels huge and Pru feels numb and bewildered. In something of a daze, she has to attend the funeral of an old friend, but at the church she notices that something’s not quite right. There are people she expected to see, who aren’t here. As she listens to the hymns and the eulogy she wonders why it doesn’t sound like the friend she knew. Then the penny drops – she’s at the wrong funeral. Yet somehow she gets swept along with it and finds she has a good time, conversation, a few drinks and banter with some of the other guests. So when she sees the black dress hanging there, she allows herself to wonder why not? Maybe she will meet a nice widower to bring some excitement into her life. With this in mind she starts to buy the paper and circle the obituaries.

It is Azra who points out that what Pru is experiencing is grief. The loss of a decades long marriage is enormous and it’s very clear she’s not thinking straight. Whenever she talks to her husband she doesn’t get a clear idea about why he wanted to leave. This is what she feels she needs to know and understand, before she can move forward. Yet, as she finds out, sometimes the truth is worse than not knowing. Now she can add anger to the list of emotions cycling through her head. In the midst of this she attends her first chosen funeral. The deceased is a woman of her own age and used to be a nurse, so her story will be that they lost touch after doing their nursing training together all those years ago. The widower seems a lovely man, devastated by his wife’s death and eager to hear stories about nursing college. Pru is welcomed back to the family home and meets the couple’s grown up children. She thinks there might be something there with this man, given a little time and the right encouragement. That’s if she had a reason to go back to the house of course? As she leaves her wrap behind as well as her number, in case he ever wants to talk some more.

Pru’s audacity really grabbed me. Yes, what she’s doing is crazy and there’s a good chance one of her escapades will go wrong. In that sense it’s a bit like watching a car crash, you can’t bear to look but you can’t look away either. Of course at first she’s looking for comfort, someone who understands the loss she has experienced maybe, and there’s an element of acting out on the anger she feels about her husband’s lies and betrayal. However, the sheer nerve it would take to walk into a stranger’s funeral and play another version of yourself for the day shows she has some sass and attitude. Whenever it goes wrong, and it does, she doesn’t stop taking those leaps of faith just to move forward. Yes, there are less messy and dangerous ways of grieving a lost relationship, but this is Pru’s way. It doesn’t matter where the next step takes her, as long as it’s away from those painful feelings and fear of loneliness. It’s in these early stages that a lot of the comedy lies too, just in the situations she places herself. There’s a kind of bravery in her actions, but a hint of madness too and I wasn’t sure which way Moggach would take her story. As it turns out, a much darker direction than I expected, but so very delicious too.

As Pru takes more risks and trusts the wrong people, her solutions take a darker turn. There were times when I wanted her to keep still for a moment and think, or even better, to feel the conflicting emotions she’s trying to stuff deep down inside. There’s a moment, where one of her beaus takes her on a helicopter ride down to an uninhabited island formed from sandbanks. As she steps onto this pristine sand, where no one else has been, there’s a brief spell of peace. Once the rotors stopped turning and she stops for a moment, I felt a sense of relief that everything was quiet. She’s in a space between places, somewhere she’s never been and that holds no memories. This moment feels like a metaphor for how Pru’s journey could have been, if she’d taken more time and space to think and explore how she really wanted the rest of her life to look. In the spiral of activity she’s missed things; if she’d struck up a friendship with that first widower, rather than a relationship, they might have been a comfort to each other, she brushes aside overtures of friendship from Pam across the road who’s always seemed a bit boring, but might have proved to be a great friend, and she might have come to terms with what happened. Now though, she’s in a spiral downwards.

It’s hard to categorise this novel, because although it feels like a light, easy read, it’s incredibly complex. I would struggle to place it in a genre, because it’s drama, tragedy, comedy, and thriller. Despite covering themes of infidelity, coercive control, death and grief it’s also warm and witty. The author does an excellent job of lampooning middle class morés, shown when Pru takes a rough diamond of a boyfriend to a party with friends. Moggach then pulls off an incredible reveal, worthy of any thriller and I really hadn’t seen coming. So much so that I had to go back and look for how I’d missed it. It was brilliantly well done. Then there’s Pru herself, a central character you can’t help but fall in love with. She’s far from perfect, in fact at times she’s conniving, manipulative and full of revenge, but she’s also warm, caring, funny and at her best she’s full of zest for life. Yet underneath it all, she’s lonely and very vulnerable. There are darker moments towards the end that made me worry for Pru, and they show how easy it is to be preyed upon by others when we’re this vulnerable. I loved being able to read about a woman of a certain age still having an exciting life, when often women over 50 are dismissed as uninteresting. Pru enjoys socialising, dressing up and having sex too. Despite her faults, I was hanging on till the last page hoping that Pru battled through – even if her methods were … unexpected. This wonderful book cements the author’s reputation with me, as a writer whose next book I would buy without hesitation.

Meet The Author

Deborah Moggach, OBE, is a British novelist and an award-winning screenwriter. She has written twenty novels, including Tulip Fever, These Foolish Things (which became the bestselling novel and film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), and The Carer. She lives in London.


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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