Saturday, March 19, 2011

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

This review appeared in the Stratford Gazette on March 17, 2011 
Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian


The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean, 292 pg
@ SPL: FIC McKea

As the full weight of winter grinds down one last time, finding a fun, light book to lift us up is sometimes all we need to make it through to spring. Does it need to be literary? Well, no - there are enough dark thoughts about heavy truths lurking as is, thanks very much. Does it need to be absorbing and silly and leave you feeling better than you did before you cracked it? Absolutely. Bonus points if it's so simple it basically reads itself. So, I was thrilled to discover a little first novel by author Erin McKean called The Secret Lives of Dresses.
Shy, tomboyish Dora is a shiftless arts major at a decent school in North Carolina - killing time working at a coffee shop and trying not to fall for her boss while she waits for the future to pan out - when her grandmother, Mimi, unexpectedly falls ill. Raised by her grandmother since her parents died in her infancy, Dora puts her aimless life on hold to make the short trip home and care for Mimi and her vintage clothing store. There, she makes three key discoveries: she loves the vintage clothing she's known all her life more than she thought; Mimi has been writing short stories about the dresses' previous lives as a brilliant (if labour intensive) marketing gimmick; and her grandmother has conveniently befriended a hot young local contractor named Con. But will meddling relations put the brakes on the whole thing by stealing the store out from under Dora and Mimi? You'll just have to read it to find out.
The plot may be simple, but it's a classic construction for a reason, and McKean does some interesting things within it. Fans of rockabilly culture and vintage clothing, for example, will surely love all the little details McKean gets right in her descriptions of the store and its wares. Readers who enjoy books set in the American south will also find lots to love, here: McKean has built Dora a full extended family of southern characters, and she uses them to humorous advantage throughout the book. The romantic tensions are well-maintained throughout the novel, but they do not overtake the plot - Dora's career considerations and relationships with friends and family are given equal airtime, and the novel is refreshingly clear of steamy scenes and strong language. This is a book built to engage, not challenge. Is it high literature? No, definitely not. Is it fun, distracting and charming? Absolutely. The Secret Lives of Dresses will give you all the means and reasons to escape you’ll need until spring.

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