Finally, I kept my promise to myself to read something that was — unlike my last few books — actually happy. Erin McKean’s The Secret Lives of Dresses deals with some tough issues that many readers can relate to, but balances the sad, poignant moments with humor and optimism. The novel begins with Dora (the protagonist) sobbing in her car as she drives through North Carolina to the bedside of her beloved grandmother Mimi, who has suffered a terrible stroke. Dora was orphaned as an infant, so Mimi is all she really has by way of family. Dora is introduced to the reader as a bit of a drifter; not unmotivated or unintelligent by any means, but simply unsure of her path and her passions in life. I’m pretty sure everyone can relate to this at least a little bit. (I know I didn’t truly embrace my passions and my goals in life until I was in college, and I feel like my path is still shifting as I learn and grow in the “real world.”)
When Dora reaches Forsyth she is taken to the hospital by Gabby, a relation of some sort who lives with Mimi. Gabby and Dora are very close, but even Gabby can’t ease the fear that Dora has when she considers losing the last link she has to her deceased parents. Dora quickly settles into a routine in Forsyth, centered on running her grandmother’s vintage clothing shop and visiting Mimi in the hospital. A colorful cast of characters complement Dora’s life, ranging from the exceptionally awesome Maux, Dora’s friend who also works in Mimi’s shop; Conrad, the contractor and architect who seems to be the only person truly able to comfort Dora; to Camille, Dora’s aunt and a perfectly heinous individual. McKean does a phenomenal job painting Camille as the woman in everyone’s family who everyone — whether secretly or openly — can’t stand. Camille is introduced “rolling up to the front door like an ocean liner” and quickly establishes herself as the sort of woman who immediately makes “everyone near her sullen and unresponsive.” She named her daughter Tyffanee. Worst of all, Camille is planning on taking over Mimi’s and transforming from a vintage boutique into a horrifying tourist trap of a store, selling t-shirts, junk souvenirs, and tacky jewelry. Oh, and she tries to start that process while Mimi is still in a coma. There is no way you can read this novel without having a visceral reaction to Camille and everything she stands for.
The novel is mainly rooted in the present, but has periodic vignettes from Dora’s past. Ranging from her childhood to recent events in her college life, these memories make Dora a much more three-dimensional character as the reader learns about her youth without her parents, her awkward high school years, and her collegiate experiences. One particularly evocative moment centers on a memory when Dora was very young and her teacher had the class draw family portraits. Another child pesters Dora as to why she has no mother and father in her drawing, and my heart ached for the little girl as the teacher publicly labeled her an orphan, without regard for Dora’s own feelings. For me, especially as a teacher thinking about my own students’ often complicated home lives, few other parts of the novel packed quite as much emotional weight as that one scene.
As Dora struggles to cope with the idea that Mimi isn’t going to get better, she discovers not only her deeply buried love for vintage fashion, but also the “Secret Lives” that Mimi had been writing for the items in her store. Unbeknownst to Dora, Mimi had for years been writing stories from the dresses’ point of view about where they had come from, what they had seen, and what type of women had worn them. The stories are lovely, descriptive, and engaging: sometimes funny, occasionally shocking, and always memorable. The customers love the stories, and soon Dora falls under their spell as well, despite her feeling of betrayal about Mimi never having told her about them.
Over the course of the novel, Dora finds that she can no longer put off deciding what to do with her life. It’s a scary decision, and McKean writes it in such a way that I truly sympathized with Dora and related to all her fears and hopes. I think every reader can also relate to the feeling of being torn between one thing that you wanted for so long it seems crazy to give up on it, versus something new that you never would have guessed you couldn’t live without. This applies both to Dora’s life choices, as well as her relationship potential. I found it incredibly hard to see anything likable about Dora’s longtime crush Gary (though that may have been McKean’s point), and couldn’t believe any woman be able to resist a man like Conrad in her life.
The Secret Lives of Dresses is a fun read. It’s not always light, but it handles pain and loss in a true-to-life manner; McKean does not deny sadness or anger, but refuses to let her heroine get dragged under by them. Dora is spunky and likeable, the kind of woman that few people are confident enough to be (even Dora isn’t sure she’s confident enough, half the time). This is definitely a novel aimed at females, but I would not under any circumstances call it “chick lit” — a term I detest regardless. It’s the type of book that simply leaves the reader feeling happy and slightly mushy in the best possible way. It’s a bit like a Disney movie in that way. It also made me want to dress like a vintage goddess, but that may not be a realistic goal. Then again, however, I just might be able to pull it off. I bet Erin McKean would tell me I could.