Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires.
Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. Cora’s studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her forever. Determined not to allow Cora to miss her chance at happiness, Etta sews a tiny stitch into Walt’s collar, hoping to give him the courage to confess his feelings to Cora. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry. After Walt is spurred into action, Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.
(Story synopsis and cover image from goodreads.com)
Over the Forth of July weekend I had the pleasure of reading The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna Van Praag, a novel I found through my Overdrive app that is linked to my library card. (It’s an awesome way too read ebooks using your library card if you have one.) I stumbled across The Dress Shop of Dreams under the section of books recommended by librarians, so I reserved a copy for when it became available. I was intrigued by this story that combined magical realism while exploring how the decisions we make affect more than just ourselves.
Most of the story centers around Cora, a young woman whose life has been dedicated to following the work of her scientist parents ever since their death in a fire when she was a young girl. However, she has had such a strong focus on fulfilling their dreams that she has locked away all other thoughts and emotions, leaving her without true emotional connections to anyone or anything, save her grandmother Etta. This all changes though when Etta realizes her granddaughter must be taught one of the most important lessons of all as she helps Cora open up her heart to what is around her, but needing to confront the past at the same time: “In a few hours she’ll wake up weeping, her heart cracked wide open. This, Etta knows, is the cost of love. It’s a great shame, she thinks, that the heart cannot feel joy without also feeling pain, that it cannot know love without also feeling loss.”
What I really enjoyed about The Dress Shop of Dreams was that Van Praag managed to bring in other characters’ voices without distracting from the momentum of the story. Each character and their actions contributed to the driving force – each person must follow and accept their own destiny. However, as we know in life, things don’t always go as we think they will. The characters that we encounter in The Dress Shop of Dreams all have made choices that affect others in the story. Some of those interactions are very positive and allow the others to grow and become better; other interactions (some unknown to a character) change their lives forever with such a negative affect that it is impossible to know how life would have been otherwise.
Almost every one of the characters in some way is touched by Etta’s magic that is found only in her dress shop. Some of them come in not knowing what they seek, while others are helped without their knowledge – Etta’s magic allows them to find the thing that will make the biggest difference in their lives. Etta gives one woman the advice of, “Never let yourself believe that you are unlovable or flawed in any way. You deserve to be loved. You deserve to kind words and an unwavering eye.” Part of Etta’s magic is her ability to know the words that each customer needs to hear. She is able to give them that little boost that resonates at the exact right time. However, as Etta explains, sometimes the magic doesn’t work the same way on the magicians. As the story progresses, we find out that Etta has been keeping a secret of her own for fifty years and has continuously tried to use her own magic on herself to find the right answer to the questions she keeps asking herself.
The Dress Shop of Dreams shows the reader how each person has that particular quality that they must trust in to become their own true selves. Some of them though become blinded by past experiences and are afraid to take a risk. Others are blinded simple because they are too close to a situation: “We can’t see what’s closest to us…once the heart is tangled up in something we lose all sense of perspective.”
I really enjoyed reading The Dress Shop of Dreams and am very glad I came across it on my Overdrive app. I loved some of the quotes (which I included above in my review) and the life wisdom that could be taken away in this magical realism novel (always a fun surprise!). I will be continuing to check the librarian recommendations to see what other treasures I find. Happy reading, and as always feel free to share your current or recommended reads below! I’m always looking for new titles to add to my TBR list.