Friday, May 6, 2022

Fiona Valpy - The Dressmaker's Gift

Paris, 1940. With the city occupied by the Nazis, three young seamstresses go about their normal lives as best they can. But all three are hiding secrets. War-scarred Mireille is fighting with the Resistance; Claire has been seduced by a German officer; and Vivienne’s involvement is something she can’t reveal to either of them.
Two generations later, Claire’s English granddaughter Harriet arrives in Paris, rootless and adrift, desperate to find a connection with her past. Living and working in the same building on the Rue Cardinale, she learns the truth about her grandmother – and herself – and unravels a family history that is darker and more painful than she ever imagined.
In wartime, the three seamstresses face impossible choices when their secret activities put them in grave danger. Brought together by loyalty, threatened by betrayal, can they survive history’s darkest era without being torn apart?

Comment: Another book I got from the library. I had never heard of the author - I now see she has written several books already - but the theme and style (WWII and dual time) are usually things I like, so...

In this book we have two stories ongoing in dual times. In our days, Harriet Shaw has just been accepted at an internship with a fashion publicist in Paris, and at the same building her grandmother once worked as a seamstress. Harriet isn't very confident on what her life should be like, she only knows she loves fashion and she hopes this connection with her grandmother can help her find her way.
In the 40s, Harriet's grandmother and two friends were well sought seamstresses, whose detailed work was the brand of French quality but the war has changed everything. Although the girls still work, their lives out of the work room are heavily affected by the German occupation. Harriet's grandmother Claire escaped her life in a fisherman's village to become someone in the capital and she welcomes the attention of a German officer, whom she sees as just someone doing a job. But her friends Mireille and Vivienne have a different opinion and this will affect their relationship...
What will it mean for Harriet when she is told about Claire's life and why her own life might have been affected because of it too?

I think the author did a good job investigating and putting pieces together to create this book. I particularly liked the sections we followed in the 40s, because these parts were detailed and emotional enough and I think the characters' evolution was easy to empathize with and to cheer for. The young ladies at some point faced terrible choices but one cannot help but appreciate them for them.

Claire is a key character, not only because of her connection with granddaughter Harriet, but because her evolution is the one which stands out the most. She goes from someone rather naive and rather shallow (dreams of becoming someone in Paris still influences some of her choices) but a betrayal makes her see things differently, with more realistic eyes. Her complicated feelings about her family back home, what life was like in a fisherman's village where fashion had no place also play a part in her behavior. I actually liked Claire's evolution.. at first she was rather unbearable but from a certain point on, how not to root for her?

This is a WWII book, so do expect some harsher content. Nothing is overly graphic on the page but we get aware of the situations people faced back then, especially those who worked for the Resistance and were caught or denounced. I would not say this is the most heartbreaking story of all in this aspect - the writing has something to do with it - but there is enough described to make the reader think and feel sad and hopeless impotence we can't change things not "save" people from such a fate.

Portuguese cover
The writing was competent, but I think it failed to go that extra step to become mesmerizing. I felt more emotional by putting myself in the character's shoes than because the writing was that engaging. At times, it felt it was forced, or planned way too much, and that simplicity in what was happening was a little lost. Still, in relation to the 40s sections, this was achieved more or less well, thus my final grade.

What could have been certainly improved a lot is the contemporary sections, and seeing several reviews, more readers would agree. Harriet's POV in the modern sections were just too silly and, to me, embellished to the point it felt no one would think like that. We are told Harriet had a rough phase in the sense her mother committed suicide and that obviously left a hole in Harriet. By investigating, she discovers there can be a connection between our parent's traumas and our own mental health. I will not discuss this, as I have no knowledge on the subject, but I do think it might seem a little far fetched to make such a linear connection between her grandmother's terrible trauma in a Nazi camp to her mothers's suicide and to her own depressing thoughts or self esteem.

Then, we also have how Harriet finds all these things.... in an amazing coincidence, a fellow work friend is the granddaughter of Mireille, who is still alive, and sends her letters, so that Harriet can know more about her own grandmother. I can believe one would be doable, but letter after letter detailing so much Mireille didn't see herself? I mean....this element could have been done better, I think.

Overall, this story has very good details, several things were fascinating to read and the 40s sections carried the book, in my opinion. The contemporary was just weird at times, forced in others and I think a story on the 40s characters alone would have been a lot stronger.
Grade: 7/10

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