Review by Bud Gundy
I admire writers who sharpen a tiny piece of a well-known historical event into a chisel, cracking open a hidden story with skill and precision. Jennifer Robson’s The Gown is an impressive example of that method.
The basic story involves two women who work for Norman Hartnell, a famous English fashion designer in post-World War II. His top-tier clients included the royal family and when Princess Elizabeth becomes engaged in 1947, she chooses Hartnell’s dress design. The news electrifies the workers at the prestigious Hartnell shop in London.
Two women will handle the rich embroidery that will ornament the dress and train. Ann, an English girl from nearby Barking and Miriam, a French war refugee with many secrets, move in with each other to share expenses, becoming fast friends.
Most people who know me will be quick to point out that I’m not well-versed in fashion of any sort, royal wedding dresses least of all. But one of the many rewards of good fiction is the way it uses a compelling story to reveal fascinating details of a new topic for the reader. I won’t go into any of the details about how embroidery and dress-making work, but it’s a fun read.
At some point, a third person enters the story. Heather lives in Toronto in 2016, and it’s a little while before we learn that Ann is her grandmother, who dies just as we meet Heather.
Back in post-war London, two men complicate the plot, and the lives of Ann and Miriam, and both radiate with menace beneath a veneer of civility and charm. It’s no surprise when the mask falls from one, yet the other rewards us with a tidy love story.
I recommend The Gown for a journey through this largely-unexplored world, a story of hardship and redemption that even takes us inside Buckingham Palace.