The Dress Shop of Dreams, Menna van Praag
Expected publication: December 30th 2014 by Ballantine Books
Paperback, 336 pgs
Source: E-ARC from Edelweiss
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.
Cora and Etta are all the family each other has. Cora’s parents died in a fire when she was a small child. She knows she was deeply loved, but has basically shut down her heart and emotions since that time. Cora is determined to be a part of scientific research that will save lives, just as her parents planned to do. Etta just wants to see her granddaughter’s happiness and so she makes just one nudge to help. One nudge is more than enough! With that one nudge, Cora is knocked out of her academic bubble, which leads to both her and her childhood friend Walter meeting new people.
I wish I could go to Etta’s magical shop and find the perfect dress for myself! Parts about this book definitely exemplified what I love about magical realism. There’s no magic wands or magic spells, but just a “feeling” of what’s possible or what’s true-and it’s fun to sometimes believe in magic like that. Etta’s magic gowns give the wearers confidence and lead them to believe in their own beauty -that’s the kind of magic I think we all need sometimes! The voice that makes us feel love, the priest who hears confession without words, a cop that can see truths – all kinds of magic that are almost believable.
I really liked Cora; and Etta too despite the meddling. Etta’s push sets Cora on a path to feel everything she’s been missing-both good and bad. I thought van Praag did this so well, because you can’t appreciate joy in the same way if you don’t also know sorrow. I liked Walt as Cora’s friend and then as her love interest. I thought his deep love over the years was maybe a bit too far fetched, but it was still sweet. I also loved that there was more than just one romance happening- but those didn’t always feel as real to me either. Still, I really enjoyed the variety even if I didn’t love all the couples.
I don’t know how to quite sum up what I didn’t like about the Dress Shop of Dreams without spoilers, but so I’ll just say that the Cora under great stress was not who I felt I had been reading and I didn’t like that so much. I didn’t think she’d face her problems like that. Once we got past that confrontation I felt we had the same Cora back and I was overall happy with all the resolutions.
I do not like that every book with magical realism has to hold itself out as “just like Sarah Addison Allen!” I get it, SAA is wonderful and I love her books. But don’t hold yourself out to be just like her because its just kind of a bummer when your book isn’t The Sugar Queen. That being said, if you like magical realism I would definitely give this a chance. If you haven’t tried magical realism I do recommend this as a sweet introduction.
Thank you to Ballantine Books and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.