Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review: The Dress Shop of Dreams

The Dress Shop of Dreams
By Menna Van Praag
Published: December 30, 2014

For fans of Alice Hoffman, Sarah Addison Allen, and Adriana Trigiani, 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.

My review:

The Dress Shop of Dreams combines magic, mystery, and romance into a charming if slightly flawed story. While the novel has been compared to the works of Sarah Addison Allen I would say that the magical element may be similar but there is a lack of the description that makes the Southern setting a living breathing character in Allen's novels. We may get plenty of clothing descriptions and the shop's walls may change color according to season but the setting never gripped me the way the Waverley house (and garden) does in Garden Spells and First Frost. This book is set in Cambridge and Oxford but I missed that in the description and it took me awhile to even realize I was reading a book set in England. That's how little the setting made an impact on me.

The setting may not be as detailed as I wished but the characters were definitely memorable. Etta has her magical gift and a prescience given by the dresses of how to help women. Walt has an almost magical voice when he reads aloud that touches listeners, bringing memories alive. Henry, a minor character, can always tell when people are lying. Cora is scientific and almost cold emotionally except where her grandmother is concerned. She seems to have shut down after the tragic death of her parents, only caring about her research and her desire to "save the world" and realize her parents' dream. 

I had a hard time relating to Cora. Even after Etta unlocks or awaken's Cora's heart with her magic thread and Cora begins to feel again I just never warmed up to her. Walt's feelings for her felt real but her eventual realization of her love for Walt didn't seem believable. I still enjoyed the journey that both characters went on and I was definitely hoping Walt would get a happy ending.  Walt, Etta, Millie and Dylan all provided a nice contrast to Cora with their ways of seeing the world and their feelings about love. I do think that Cora changed by the end of the story and seeing things in a less scientific way.

The mystery in the novel concerns the death of Cora's parents. Was the fire an accident or like Etta believes was there another cause? When Cora starts to remember the fire, Etta voices her concerns and Cora begins to investigate. I think it was important to Cora's growth that she dealt with her emotions about her parents' loss but this storyline felt a little too much. It also brought an extra set of characters from outside of Cambridge with their own baggage and issues. I love mystery usually but it didn't quite work here. It would have been nice to just focus on character development and the various romances already introduced.

Overall I liked this book. It wasn't as good as Sarah Addison Allen's books but there were definitely some enjoyable moments and I cared about even the minor characters like Millie and Dylan (and Henry though he is part of that extraneous mystery plot). I also loved the way the author included literature throughout the book and the references to Jane Austen. I think readers who like Sarah Addison Allen's books would like The Dress Shop of Dreams. Fans of Sarah Jio may also appreciate the romantic themes, especially the second chance love story.

Note: I received an ARC for review purposes courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley


  1. I do love the sound of this book and especially the Jane Austen references (!), but I think I will stick to Sarah Addison Allen. I have only read two of her books and I hope to read more. Like you said, her books seem to make the southern setting come to life and I am sorry to hear that was missing here. Great review, Christina!

  2. Oh wow! Your review is so good and describes the book {and its flaws} perfectly! The way you verbalized the fundamental differences between Sarah Addison Allen and Menna Van Praag is spot on! I thought I was simply being partial to Allen's southern backdrops {I'm from Georgia and a Southern-girl through and through} but you're absolutely right ~ Van Praag's setting left so much to be desired. I'm certain I would be fascinated touring the local street she patterned All Saints Passage after but I didn't get the sense of immersion with setting in this her other book, The House at the End of Hope Street? Now that's one the setting plays an important role and made me dream of being a resident artist in her hope street home. I'm definitely going to check out Sarah Jio's books ~ thanks for the tip!

  3. I agree with Stacey--the setting in The House at the End of Hope Street is palpable. I think you should enjoy it more than you did this one. I'll be adding this to my list!

  4. It sounds like you enjoyed it in spite of quite a few flaws. I'm curious whether I'll view the setting similarly having visited the places in England. SAA does such a beautiful job with magical realism, settings and characters, it's hard to top that but I'd still like to read this one, even though I hate being disappointed. Beautifully written review btw


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