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The Gown by Jennifer Robson

The Gown

by Jennifer Robson

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The Gown is ostensibly about Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown – and yes, the book does spend some fair amount of time in the workroom of Norman Hartnell but this is really the story of two of the girls who worked on the dress. In the period after WWII England was still suffering from the aftereffects. Everything is rationed and it’s one of the coldest winters London has seen with little coal to be had for heat. The joy of a Royal Wedding is giving the country something to celebrate.

Ann is a senior embroiderer working for Mr. Hartnell. She loves her work adorning the dresses for the royal ladies and other wealthy clients. Miriam is a young woman from France who is escaping the horrors of the war and the loss of her family to the Nazis. She uses her determination and skills to land a job at Hartnell’s and soon becomes friends with Ann. The two of them are soon living together and find themselves selected to work on the princess’s wedding dress.

Soon after the royal wedding Ann leaves England for Canada and Miriam goes on to become a famous artist. Ann never speaks of her time at Hartnell’s with her family and none of them know of her history. It’s only when a box with her granddaughter Heather’s name on it is found after her death that the questions start being asked about Ann’s life before she came to Canada. Heather decides to go to England to find some answers.

I cannot write enough about how much I enjoyed this book. Usually when I read a dual timeline story I prefer one time’s tale to the other’s but in The Gown’s case I loved both. The bulk of the story was spent in the past with Ann and Miriam as is to be expected but Heather’s part of the story is quite interesting as well.

I was pulled into the story from the very beginning and I read the book in one day. It was hard to put it down and the only reason I did was to cook dinner. The portion that takes place in the present is perhaps one third of the book but it’s a vital part of the book and it pulls everything together. Given the premise, the heart of the story lies in the portion and Ms. Robson brought post WWII London alive in all of it’s gritty glory. She also develops her characters slowly and deftly so that as a reader you become invested in their lives.

Her descriptions of the Hartnell workshop were fascinating. I felt like I was there with the young women as they went to work every morning and lived their excitement when they learned they would be making a wedding dress for the Princess Elizabeth. In a world that is grey, crumbling and bitter cold the joy of a wedding is contagious.

The book is more than just the making of this iconic wedding dress, it is also the story of Ann and Miriam; of their friendship and of the relationships that move them into the future. Their friendship is a strong one and the women’s separate tales also make for fascinating reading. Miriam has been through so much as a Jewish woman in France; her family has disappeared and she has survivor’s guilt. Ann has lost family in the war and life is just hard for everyone in its aftermath.

Ms. Robson brings post war London alive in vivid detail so that I felt the bitter cold and could taste the weak tea. The stories were captivating in both eras. It’s a book than any history buff or fan of Queen Elizabeth II will love. ( )
  BrokenTeepee | Jan 18, 2019 |
If I say the word wedding gown, what do you think of? Do you think of a royal wedding gown like Princess Grace's, Princess Diana's, Duchess Catherine's, or Duchess Meghan's? If you are royal obsessed, you probably think of some of those much photographed gowns. What about Queen Elizabeth's wedding gown? Do you think of that one? If you were lucky enough to see the "Fashioning a Reign" exhibit at Buckingham Palace in 2016 like I was, you got to see the intricately embroidered gown in person and it is impressive indeed. It was the wedding gown of the future queen but what of the people who made it? Designer Norman Hartnell was credited with the gown but the numerous people who had a hand in its actual creation remain anonymous. Jennifer Robson's new novel, The Gown, focuses on two women who played a major part in the meticulous hand embroidery and on the granddaughter of one, who never knew about the important part her grandmother played in creating Princess Elizabeth's glamorous wedding gown.

Ann Hughes had worked in the embroidery room at Norman Hartnell's Mayfair studio for eleven years, creating beautiful embroidery that had graced the royals' and other wealthy patrons' clothing when Miriam Dassin, a Frenchwoman new to London, joined the atelier. The year was 1947, a year of continuing austerity after WWII The winter was brutally cold and food was scarce but at least Ann had a roof over her head, even if her beloved sister in law, her brother's widow, had moved to Canada, leaving her lonely and in search of a roommate. As Ann and Miriam worked together and got to know each other, Ann invited Miriam to move in. These two very different women became good friends as well as co-workers, sharing their secrets and their heartbreaks, the horrors of war and of life afterwards.

In 2016, in Toronto, journalist Heather Mackenzie is mourning the loss of her Nan. When she discovers several beautiful floral embroidery samples left to her by her grandmother, she decides to research her Nan's life before she moved to Canada, a life never discussed with her daughter or granddaughter. And when Heather discovers that the embroideries match those on Queen Elizabeth's wedding dress, she is more determined than ever to uncover the past her grandmother never shared, a past that will lead her to the celebrated artist Miriam Dassin and to the realization that her grandmother had a hand in the celebrated wedding gown.

There are three different narratives weaving together in this novel, Ann and Miriam in 1947 and Heather in 2016. Ann and Miriam's stories focus on the life of working class young women in the aftermath of the war, their growing friendship, and their dating lives while Heather's story centers mainly on her search to learn more about her late Nan, to uncover the mystery she left behind. Ann and Miriam's stories are a bit more engaging than Heather's, offering more tension and drama than the modern day narrative does. That the 1947 narratives offer a look into the lives of two women who gave their skill and their quiet, unquestionable loyalty in the making of the princess's wedding dress, women who are otherwise anonymous, makes for fascinating reading. Although the wedding gown is central to the story, and to Heather's discovery of information on her Nan, this is as much the story of the necessity of friendship as anything. It is their friendship that helps Miriam confront the nightmare of her past and it is their friendship that gives Ann the courage to do what she ultimately needs to do. It is also that friendship that opens doors and the future to Heather. Readers or Anglophiles looking for engrossing historical fiction, for a tale of women's friendship, or for well done multiple narratives will find this a quick and rewarding read. ( )
  whitreidtan | Jan 7, 2019 |
The Gown from Jennifer Robson is the wonderful combination of both a compelling story and a very interesting period in history. With two timelines and three voices, there are many avenues into the story for any reader. And once into the story you will be captivated.

I am neither a particularly big Anglophile nor one who cares much one way or the other about the royal family, so this book would seem outside my normal reading. And it is, with the exception of the broad category of historical fiction. But good writing, characters that I care about, and a story that weaves the personal and the public together makes for a great read no matter what one's usual genre preferences are.

Highly recommended for readers of historical fiction as well as those readers who simply enjoy reading a well-crafted book. To use the cliche: It made me laugh, it made me cry. It also made me think, which is always a positive in a novel.

Reviewed from a copy made available through Goodreads First Reads. ( )
  pomo58 | Jan 6, 2019 |
Lindas Book Obsession Reviews “The Gown” by Jennifer Robson
Kudos to Jennifer Robson, Author of “The Gown” for vividly writing and describing the enchanting, emotional, exciting, heartbreaking, enthralling and intriguing novel about one of the most famous Royal wedding dresses in history and the workers who created it. The Genres for this story are Historical Fiction, and Romance. The timelines for this story are in the past after World War Two, and in the present. The story goes further in the past only when it pertains to the characters in the events in the stories.The story takes place in England, France, Canada, and the United States. The author describes her colorful characters as hardworking, creative, complex and complicated perhaps to the events in history.
In 2016, in Toronto, Heather Mackenzie is left some material with exquisite embroidered flowers in an envelope addressed to her from her late grandmother, Nan. Heather has no idea what they mean. They appear to be at least 70 years old, and possibly have something to do that was part of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown. After viewing some pictures of Nan, and some friends from years ago, Heather wants the opportunity to go to London to learn what Nan’s live was like. Nan was a quiet woman, and never shared many parts of her life.
When Heather is in London she is trying to find former friends and acquaintances of her grandmother. Heather realizes that there is a huge connection with the famous textile artist Miriam Dassin, a holocaust survivor, and her grandmother.
In 1947, Ann Hughes (Nan) and Miriam Dassin feel lucky to be working as embroiderers for the fashion house of Norman Hartnell. In London, it is a cruel cold winter with shortages of fuel, food and many items. After World War Two, England is still trying to recover as most of the world is. Norman Hartnell is known for making gowns for the Royal family. There is a huge fascination with the royal family. Ann and Miriam are living in Ann’s house and go to work together, and become the closet of friends.. Miriam has an exceptional artistic talent and Ann encourages her. Miriam also has deep dark secrets and guilt.
When Princess Elizabeth gets engaged at the young age of 21, Norman Hartnell as well as his employees are hoping that they get to design the wedding gown. When Norman Hartnell and staff get to do the gown, extreme measures of secrecy are put in place. Newspapers and journalist are trying to get information on the royal wedding gown. Unscrupulous people are willing to pay a fortune to get information about the gown to make money. These are still desperate and dangerous times.
The “Gown” represents to many of the workers hope, and faith and love. What does Heather learn about her grandmother and Miriam Dassin’s relationship? Why has Nan been so secretive about her life? How does this tie into the making of the most famous gown in history?
The author is an amazing storyteller, and the details of how hard it was for the workers getting the materials, and making the designs was so intriguing. I would recommend this book for readers that love the genre of Historical Fiction. ( )
  teachlz | Dec 30, 2018 |
So, what makes a story about a gown so special? In this case, it's the wedding gown that Princess Elizabeth wore at her wedding. Jennifer Robson has woven together a fascinating tale about two women that worked on the gown and a young woman that discovers her grandmother has some skeletons in her closet...

  MaraBlaise | Dec 21, 2018 |
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