Historical fiction is supposed to transport the reader to another place and time and when it’s truly well written the reader is totally immersed and doesn’t willingly return to the present. I wish I could say “The Dressmaker’s Gift” easily whisked me away but it didn’t happen. However, it has other things to recommend it.
The setting is 1940 in Paris at the beginning of WWII and chronicles the lives of three young women, each with their own secret activities, mostly unknown to the others even though they’re roommates. Harriet, the English granddaughter of one of the three goes to Paris in the present day looking for a connection to her roots because of an old photo she came across of the trio. Her search uncovers some closely held family secrets.
The narrative jumps back and forth between 1940-45 and present day. The historical chapters are written in third person from the POV of Mireille, Claire and Vivienne. But Harriet’s present day narrative is in first person. An interesting, if somewhat confusing (at least to me) literary technique.
Author Valpy captures the air of desperation and exhaustion the Parisiennes lived with daily for so many years and the toll it took on them, especially the food shortages, not to mention the constant fear caused by the German occupation. Where this author shines though is in her ability to capture and convey the resilience of the human spirit. That alone makes this worth the read. On a side note, even though I’ve consumed my share of novels of this era I have never heard of concentration camps for non-Jews or supposed “traitors”. That was a real revelation.
That said, I never felt swept away by the story. I was able to lay it aside any number of times and return to it without any sense of urgency. “The Dressmaker’s Gift” was obviously well researched and I was pleased to see the Author’s Note about the lack of consensus on the genetically inherited trauma theory because it had my eyebrows raised when I first read it. Happy to know I’m not alone in my skepticism. Four stars.
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