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The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee

The Midnight Dress

by Karen Foxlee

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The daughter of an alcoholic who drifts from town to town, Rose Lovell has never had a home, a place where she fit in. In her fifteenth year, the pair stumbles into the beach town of Leonora, and something like settling occurs. Rose and her father still live in their vehicle, but on her first day at the local high school she makes a friend – the vivacious, picture-perfect Pearl. Pearl is pretty and smart, as chatty as Rose is reticent, and she barges past Rose’s reluctance to drag the new girl into Leonora’s social life. She convinces Rose that she must participate in the annual harvest festival, the biggest event the town has to offer, and sends her off to talk with Edie Baker, a seamstress who lives in a dilapidated, crumbling building at the edge of town. Edie agrees to help Rose make a dress from a stunning midnight blue fabric, and as they sew she regales Rose with tales of her family. But the night of the harvest festival turns disastrous when one of the high school girls disappears, leaving little evidence or clues for the detective summoned to solve the case.

Each chapter is named after a specific type of stitch – ‘catch stitch’, ‘spiderweb stitch’, etc – and opens with a few paragraphs from after the night of the harvest festival. These segments are from the perspective of Detective Glass as he struggles to figure out what happened to the missing girl. The story than jumps back in time and switches to Rose’s life in the weeks before the festival as she hangs out with Pearl and becomes acquainted with the quirky, insular town of Leonora. The two narratives create a tension – we know that something very bad will happen, casting a shadow over the idyllic life of the ‘before’ scenes, and as readers we often know something that Glass does not, and wish there was a way to guide him to the correct clue. This way of storytelling keeps the story tight and propels it forward.

This is an excellent exercise in magical realism. There are hints of magic in the way that Edie Baker talks and lives, but it’s never overt, and could easily be a byproduct of the town’s collective imagination. Or maybe there really is something special about Edie and her sewing. I like the subtlety of it, and the fact that the reader can interpret this magic however they’d like.

With lovely, evocative writing and two captivating heroines – one the beaming ideal teenage innocent, the other a rougher, grittier outsider longing for inclusion - The Midnight Dress is an intriguing mystery and a fun read. ( )
  makaiju | Mar 30, 2014 |
Nice suspense thriller about a loner teenager finding a home for herself for the first time.
  GR8inD8N | Feb 19, 2014 |
I was completely captivated by this story. The combination of the exotic (well, exotic to me, at least) setting and the compelling main character made for a page-turning read, that once I finished, I wanted to start all over again. That doesn't usually happen to me in a book, which makes me glad that this is the last book of the year that I finished, letting me end my reading on a high note.

So let's start with the setting. Rose and her father move to a small, rural town in Australia, which is described so well by the author that I could feel the humidity closing in on me at times. Admittedly, I don't like heat and humidity at all, so reading this book sometimes made me want to fan myself (or at least step outside for a moment. I live in the Chicago area, so it's nice and cold right now). The town, itself, isn't described so much as some of the parts that are outside of town, like where Rose and her father live, and where the dressmaker's house is. I've never been to Australia, so I wasn't familiar with some of the plants and animals in the book. However, this just made me want to look them up, and hope they were all real.

And speaking of settings, the house that Edie (the dressmaker) lives in is a character all unto itself. The author creates something that seems to be more than a house, almost, where there might just be small bits of magic happening. It's not the loveliest house; actually, it's far from it. "The house is falling apart. There's a tree growing through the front stairs. Everywhere there's the detritus of the forest. The leaves drying in small piles in the corners of rooms and seedpods jammed in the floorboards. The curtains are dappled with mildew and festooned with spiderwebs." (p. 45-46). But somehow, despite its condition (and apparent smell, I'd imagine, considering the mildew and constant humidity), it's fascinating. It's hard to imagine Edie living in it, but at the same time, it's completely appropriate.

The characters are well-written, and not all of them are likable (which is perfectly fine with me - I don't need to like a character, as long as I find them interesting). Rose is a bit prickly and difficult, and a real opposite to Pearl. Her home situation is also the opposite of Pearl, so I found it interesting that we have two teen characters who are similar and different, and we have the adults that way, as well. I liked that not all of the adults were wonderful, and helpful, and supportive. What I mean is: Rose's father isn't that great of a father, and I liked that he's this way, because it felt more realistic to me.

One of the things that I enjoyed in this book was that there is a story within a story going on here. You get Rose's story, in the present (more or less), as well as the story that is going on right after someone (actually, two people) go missing. You get the perspective from Rose, but you also get the perspective from Detective Glass. I also liked that when Rose meets Edie and gets to know her, that Edie tells her stories of her own life. So, it's stories wrapped in stories (like a wonderful present in a beautiful box filled with layers of colorful tissue paper). I wasn't always sure what was going to happen, either, which made it a great read.

This is one of the most beautiful books that I've read, mostly because it's beautifully written, but also because I felt like it was intelligently written. It made me want to look up things, and places. It made me imagine things, and it made me feel like I wanted to know some of the characters better. It made me wonder about what happened to some of them after the book. It's a talent not all authors have, and one that I really appreciate. ( )
  Naberius | Dec 27, 2013 |
I got a copy of this book to review through the Amazon Vine program. I thought the premise was fascinating and had heard some great things about this book. It ended up being a very interesting and creepy young adult horror/paranormal read.

This is about a girl named Rose who moves with her nomadic father to the city of Paradise. There she meets a girl named Pearl who convinces Rose to have an old woman named Evie help Rose make a dress for the upcoming Harvest Festival. As things start to unfold, tragedy befalls the town of Paradise...all because of the events surrounding the midnight blue dress that Evie and Rose make.

The book was formatted in a really interesting way. Each chapter starts with an italicized portion that is in current time, then the book goes back to the past and the majority of the chapter is spent in the past figuring out how Evie and Pearl got to where they are in the present.

The writing is beautiful, the pace of the story is deliberate and mysterious. This is basically about an unlikely friendship between two girls who are each suffering through their own problems. It is a creepy story, mainly because of Rose’s unpredictable and sometimes drunken father and because of an older man named Paul that Pearl is infatuated with.

Rose is an interesting character. She moves a lot and has a hard time making friends. Her father is also very poor, so she doesn’t have much in the way of material items. For some reason Pearl takes an interest in Rose and kind of adopts her; Rose is stunned by this but also somewhat grateful to finally have someone in her life that she can share things with.

Pearl is also an interesting character. She is a romantic and constantly dreams of leaving town and exploring the wider world. Pearl thinks everything is beautiful and that it is all a game. She expects the best of everyone, most of the time this brings out the best in everyone but sometimes it leads people to expect things from her they shouldn’t.

There is some magical realism in here, but when I think back to the story everything can pretty much be explained through non-magical means. There are hints that the dress Rose and Evie make is something more and that Evie has roots in witchcraft.

There are some pretty big twists right at the end of the story. You totally think you know what is going on and then bam! the story takes you by surprise. It doesn’t feel contrived or anything, and after you find out what really happened you find yourself thinking back to the story and then going “Huh, yeah, that completely makes sense.”

Overall this was an intriguing book. While not the type of book I would normally read, it was an engaging book that was beautifully written. The story was told in a very creative way and I love how we got glimpses of the present while we were being told the story that led to that present. I would recommend to those who love creepy thriller-like reads with some magical realism in them. ( )
  krau0098 | Dec 16, 2013 |
Had this book not been chosen by my face-to-face reading group, I probably wouldn't have come across it, but I'm glad I did. Karen Foxlee is a new-to-me Australian author.

Apart from anything else, the structure of the book is unusual and interesting. After the annual Harvest Parade in which they both participated, two girls are missing in a coastal sugar cane town in mid-northern Queensland.

Each of the chapters is headed with the name of a stitch used in tailoring or embroidery.
Anchor Stitch
Oyster Stitch
Catch Stitch
Straight Stitch
Binding Stitch
Spider Web Stitch etc. etc. (I didn't know there were so many stitches)

And the reader's attention is captured straight away in the opening of the first chapter, Anchor Stitch:

Will you forgive me if I tell you the ending? There’s a girl. She’s standing where the park outgrows itself and the manicured lawn gives way to longer grass and the stubble of rocks. She is standing in no-man’s-land, between the park and the place where the mill yards begin.

It’s night and the cane trains are still.

It is unbearably humid and she feels the sweat sliding down her back and she presses her hands there into the fabric to stop the sensation that is ticklishly unpleasant. She lifts up the midnight dress to fan her legs. It’s true, the dress is a magical thing, it makes her look so heavenly.

After a couple of pages from this narrator, the chapter continues with the story from the beginning. Rose Lovell arrives in town with her father at the Paradise caravan park where they will live for the next few months. She meets Pearl Kelly in the next day or so when she goes to school. They will be the central characters of the story, but there is also Edie Baker, an eccentric dressmaker with a history, Rose's alcoholic father, and Paul Rendell who runs a Book Exchange in the back of his mother's shop.

The first chapter sets the pattern for the rest. There is always a preface from the narrator, helpfully written in italics, and then the continuing story. There's the feeling of two paths, with the main story slowly catching up to the point where the narrator's brief snippets begin.

The two teenage girls are trying to establish their identities. Rose has been on the move with her father for a number of years after the apparent drowning suicide of her mother. She has had little chance to establish friends, and she connects surprisingly well with both Pearl and Edie, who agrees to help her make her dress for the Harvest Parade. Pearl is trying to work out who she is too, looking for her Russian father, by writing to men surnamed Orlov in Moscow. As Rose and Edie make the dress, so the tragedies of Edie's life emerge.

After a stuttering start, the book gathers pace. The author drops information all over the place and there are many little stories for the reader to piece together. It is a very effective technique.

So for me, Karen Foxlee is a new author to watch out for. A great book, not just a coming of age novel, but a well constructed mystery on many levels. ( )
  smik | Dec 4, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375856455, Hardcover)

Quiet misfit Rose doesn't expect to fall in love with the sleepy beach town of Leonora. Nor does she expect to become fast friends with beautiful, vivacious Pearl Kelly, organizer of the high school float at the annual Harvest Festival parade. It's better not to get too attached when Rose and her father live on the road, driving their caravan from one place to the next whenever her dad gets itchy feet. But Rose can't resist the mysterious charms of the town or the popular girl, try as she might.

Pearl convinces Rose to visit Edie Baker, once a renowned dressmaker, now a rumored witch. Together Rose and Edie hand-stitch an unforgettable dress of midnight blue for Rose to wear at the Harvest Festival—a dress that will have long-lasting consequences on life in Leonora, a dress that will seal the fate of one of the girls. Karen Foxlee's breathtaking novel weaves friendship, magic, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and distinctly original.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:32:41 -0400)

Rose, nearly sixteen, is used to traveling around with her alcoholic father but connects with the people of a small, coastal Australian town, especially classmate Pearl and reclusive Edie, who teaches her to sew a magical dress for the Harvest Festival while a mystery unfolds around them.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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