The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag

December 29, 2014 Book Reviews 14 ★★★★

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van PraagThe Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag
Published by Random House Publishing Group on December 30th 2014
Genres: Fiction, Magical Realism
Pages: 336
Format: eARC
Source: the publisher through NetGalley
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The Dress Shop of Dreams is a captivating novel of enduring hopes, second chances, and the life-changing magic of true love.

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.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.

One of my favorite authors is Elizabeth Goudge. Her books are filled with optimism, with a sense that if we just have faith, and wait, and do what seems right, all will come right in the end: goodness and love (in the broadest sense) will prevail. I felt much of the same sense of hope and promise of joy to come in Menna van Praag’s The Dress Shop of Dreams. Both authors express a similar spirituality, although Goudge’s is more overtly Christian in flavor, while van Praag’s is for the most part a quiet magic that a reader could imbue with almost any recognized faith, or none. Both writers also deal with the joys and sorrows of more-or-less ordinary people, who become far from ordinary in the authors’ capable hands.

That said, stylistically van Praag is not at all like Elizabeth Goudge. The Dress Shop of Dreams is written mostly in present tense, with the exception of a number of flashbacks or memories. I’m not usually a fan of present tense, but van Praag writes deftly, and before long I barely noticed.

And I loved her characters, and became invested in almost all of them: Cora, with her penchant for counting and her locked-away heart; Walt with his unspoken love for books and Cora and his magnificent talent for reading aloud; Etta with her subtle dressmaker’s magic and her gift for seeing into people’s hearts; Henry the policeman, in love with justice and his ex-wife; Sebastian the priest, who feels he no longer has anything to give; Dylan and Millie and even Francesca. All of them have dreams and hopes; all of them are seeking healing and love.  As the novel progresses, the connections between them grow or become apparent.

There is a bit of a mystery in the book, but I would not describe it as a mystery novel. I figured out the culprit before all was revealed, but it didn’t matter; the focus isn’t really on the mystery itself but on Cora’s pursuit of the truth, and on the various characters’ relationships.

The Dress Shop of Dreams is not a fast-paced or action-filled novel. Rather, it’s a quiet celebration of life and of love. And it’s filled with funny moments, though it’s not a humorous novel on the whole.  It would make a wonderful choice for a book club: it’s not a difficult read, the plethora of characters and their choices and mistakes offer plenty of material for discussion, and the book’s quietly optimistic tone might be a welcome respite after darker novels.



14 Responses to “The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag”

  1. Lark

    Is this book better than her novel The House at the End of Hope Street? Because while I liked that book…I didn’t love it. So I’m a little hesitant to read her again. Life’s short, right? And with so many books on my To-Read list I’ve got to be a little bit picky. 🙂
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    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      I don’t know, because I haven’t had a chance to read The House at the End of Hope Street yet. I quite enjoyed The Dress Shop of Dreams, but it didn’t rate 5 stars (then again, I rarely give out 5 stars.) What made you not love The House at the End of Hope Street, if you don’t mind my asking?

      • Lark

        I loved the idea of a magical house full of literary characters where you can go to “heal” for ninety-nine days…but I didn’t love the main characters. And if I can’t connect with the characters I have a hard time loving the book. Maybe my expectations were just too high, but I came away a little disappointed. I thought it was a good book, just not the book I was hoping it would be.
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        • Lark_Bookwyrm

          I prefer to connect to the main characters, too, and I did with many of the characters in The Dress Shop of Dreams. But connecting with characters is such a personal thing; I’m sorry that The House at the End of Hope Street didn’t work for you in that respect. I’ll probably give it a try, since I liked this one, but I can certainly understand your hesitation in trying again after the first book you read by her didn’t draw you in.

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      I wouldn’t say van Praag is quite as good as Goudge yet, and certainly not quite as rich or nuanced – her writing is more spare, but she’s one of the few authors I’ve come across who gives me a similar feeling, and her characters are well-drawn and memorable.

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      Cambridge and Oxford, England… which I love, because I love almost anything in England, and I’ve actually been to both (though I don’t remember Oxford well; I was still in elementary school, I think, or maybe high school. Decades ago, at any rate.) Yes, one would need to be in the right mood; it’s not a grab-your-attention-and-keep-you-riveted sort of book, more like a quiet-afternoon-and-a-cup-of-tea sort of book.