The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: The Dress Shop of Dreams

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve been putting off this review. Sometimes bloggers get ragged on for being overly positive with all their reviews, as if there are no flaws in the material they are reading. This can’t possibly be true but often it’s easier to overlook the flaws when the rest of the book is so good. Sometimes it’s not worth dwelling on the bad. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable because I’m not an author myself and I don’t know what it’s like to pour myself into a story day after day and I’m not sure I have the authority to rip apart the work of someone who does do that.

So here we are. The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna Van Praag.

dress shop

The Story in a Nutshell

Cora Carraway is brilliant – she is working on a project that would see more of the world’s people fed for a fraction of the cost, no matter the climate. This work carries on the legacy that her parents, killed in a house fire when Cora was a child, were unable to complete. Her grandmother, Etta, raised her and she spent her childhood darting between the magic dresses that Etta sells. These dresses allow their wearers to see themselves how they could be – their magic helps women find love, their dream jobs, get out of bad relationships and move on from any kind of emotional devastation. Across the street is Walt, owner of a bookstore, who is hopelessly in love with Cora. He hasn’t told anyone but when he’s not at the bookstore, he reads stories on the radio and the people (mostly women) that listen to him find that his voice heals their broken hearts, gives them courage to make changes in their lives etc. Etta feels that Cora’s life has stalled and she needs some encouragement to move forward. So she hints to Cora that the fire that killer her parents wasn’t accidental, knowing it will spurn Cora on to find out what happened.

The Good

Etta is a fabulous fictional grandmother. She cares deeply for the happiness and well-being of her granddaughter and tries to stay out of her life until it becomes apparent that Cora won’t do anything about anything herself. The dress shop she owns sounds like the most magical place and I loved the idea of Etta sewing a little red star into a shirt to kickstart some magic into the lives of the people around her. There are also a number of other little side stories: Walt gets romantically involved with a woman who wrote to him after hearing his voice on the radio; Walt’s producer Dylan starts writing to these women as Walt, to try and make them feel like someone sees them and accidentally falls in love; a policeman that Cora works with to find out what happened to her parents is trying to move on from his divorce, convinced that his ex-wife still loves him, trying to work out why she left. I liked the idea of most of these little stories and that the characters all connected to each other.

The Bad

However, the whole thing was rather saccharine and trite. Cora is a brilliant woman with an incredible career doing work that she is passionate about and all her wonderful grandmother can think is “damn I wish she was married”? Seriously? Walt has been pining for Cora since he was like 6 years old and he hasn’t done a thing about it ever in all these years? He owns his own business, isn’t a bad looking guy, and he doesn’t have the balls to say “hey Cora, do you want to get dinner sometime?” UGH. None of these people have the gumption to DO something about anything. Walt ends up dating this woman, Milly, and he’s not in love with her and she’s keeping a secret from him and she says she loves him and he’s too chicken sh*t to be honest with her so he says that he loves her too.

In order to resolve anything, these supposedly intelligent characters rely on things like gut feelings to figure out the world around them. The police officer tells Cora “There’s one thing you want to know about me…I can tell a liar at a hundred paces.” And that’s a great trait for a police officer to have professionally. But if we’re going to solve this mystery, I need more than just “I can tell he’s lying” you know?

The Ugly

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that everything, Walt and Milly, Milly and Dylan, the police officer and his ex, Cora and Walt, Etta and her secret love, what really happened in the fire, is all wrapped up neatly in 326 pages. It’s not messy or realistic or even magical, which is a disappointment considering Etta is supposed to work in this magical dress shop. While I liked the stories on the periphery, especially the policeman, they felt like distractions to the real story of Cora and Etta and the fire. It frustrates me no end that a female character like this still boiled down to a single characteristic: that she didn’t have a husband.

Ugh. I feel so dirty writing these kinds of posts. But at least I didn’t hold back eh?

16 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: The Dress Shop of Dreams

  1. I agree with your first paragraph. I like most books enough that I don’t feel the need to talk about the bad stuff. When I read, I’m not looking for a perfect book, only a good story. And, that’s what I get most of the time. I think people can probably tell how ,much I liked a book by the level of enthusiasm in my review. I also believe that just because I didn’t love it, doesn’t mean someone else won’t. Which brings me to your review.

    The way you wrote this tells me what it was that you didn’t like about it. Someone else might come along and like the things you dislike. I bet a lot of people like nicely tied up endings and predictable plots. And, the subplots you described sound like fun. You had lots of good things to say along with the bad! This negative review did not make me cringe, so well done!

      • Oh good, I’m glad I wrote it. I was worried it sounded a bit mother hen-ish. I knew you were worried about it and I wanted you to know that I thought you did it just right. There was lots of good stuff. And, the bad stuff to you might be fine to someone else. 🙂

  2. Is it bad that I enjoyed the mini rant at the end? Lol.
    I completely and 100% know what you mean about bad reviews. I agree with Naomi in that this review specifically does say what you found wrong with the book, but also leaves ends open for people who may love it. You didn’t trash it, you just had an opinion! My issue with negative reviews is when people trash a book so completely that anyone who may enjoy it would feel ostracised. You didn’t do that AT ALL! You go girl :).

    • Thank you! I’m so relieved you and Naomi think so. Negative reviews are tough but maybe every once in a while they’re needed so that readers know that you’re not just a Pollyanna who thinks everything is perfect.

      I did rant a little. Sometimes the feminist in me just can’t help herself.

  3. I love this review so much more than my own. I liked the book a bit more than you I think though-or you gave it deeper thought. I see your point about Cora’s single status and that is annoying. I was mostly mad at her in the end when she was able to move on from that confession in about 2.5 seconds. I kind of wanted to punch the book for that.

    • Wow, thanks!

      I think once I caught onto this one aspect of the book, I couldn’t let it go and it coloured the whole thing. But seriously, she finds out what happened to her parents and she’s like “no, it’s fine. He will do their good work and help people. He feels bad.” UM what?

      I like the visual of you punching a book hahaha

  4. I was a little leery about reading this book because I wasn’t a huge fan of Van Praag’s previous novel The House at the End of Hope Street. It sounds like you experienced the same kind of frustration with the characters in this book that I felt with the characters in her other book. I’m thinking this author just isn’t for me. (And I like the honesty of your review. You didn’t trash the book, just explained the problems you had with it. I, for one, really appreciate it.)

  5. I like your opening paragraph. It’s true, usually I can overlook little things when I enjoyed the story overall. And then when I do try to state a standing a little more clearly, I feel like I’m cheating the author. Like for Orphan Train, I said it wasn’t an amazing book, but enjoyable. Sounds bad. But I think 3 star books are enjoyable. Idk. I like the set up of this review…very clever. And good points!

    • Well thank you friend! It’s easy to overlook the little things as long as they don’t distract or take away from the rest of the book. I think 3 star reads are totally enjoyable – they don’t all have to be perfect books. But I need more than this one delivered.

  6. I can relate to how you are feeling about writing negative reviews. I think I read another review somewhere that came to similar conclusions about the things that didn’t make sense in this book. I hope your next read is ten times better!

    • I’m glad it wasn’t just me. It’s not fun to write negative reviews. I think most book bloggers do it because we love books and want to share that love with others. When you have to write a bad one, it just feels wrong.

      Landline was the book I read after so it was WAY better!

  7. Oh my gosh, I finished this book before New Year’s and have not yet written a review for all of the reasons you so cogently put in this review. Thank you! I feel like this novel was set up so perfectly and then just fell apart.

    Still, I know it’s hard to write a negative review but you handled it beautifully and I’m sure all your readers are grateful!

  8. Pingback: Packing Bookish Essentials | The Paperback Princess

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s