First off, I would like to state that I recently finished another one of van Praag’s novels for an advance review from Netgalley called The Witches of Cambridge, which I loved. For that full review, please click here.
That being said, The Dress Shop of Dreams is a very different story from van Praag’s most recent offering. The setting and writing style is the same, present-day Cambridge area in a magical-realistic world, written from the third-person present tense. It makes you wonder if van Praag would ever consider doing a crossover series, but I digress. This is where the similarities between the two novels end; where The Witches of Cambridge includes a full cast of main characters whom are all entertwined, Dress Shop has two central figures with a full supporting cast, many of whom never even interact.
The Dress Shop of Dreams follows a young woman named Cora, whose life was completely overturned after a fire claimed both of her parent’s lives and she locked her memories of it away, with the regrettable side effect of locking her ability to feel away as well. She is a scientist working to change the world, but her life otherwise is unremarkable, all stemming from her inability to fully love anyone. Cora’s grandmother Etta owns a dress shop where women come in seeking beautiful clothing and leave with something a little extra: confidence for the woman who needs a push, clarity for the one who is torn, and so on. Cora is a stitch witch in a sense, sewing her trademark star into the dress of choice and imbuing it with that little something needed. The only people she hasn’t worked her magic on is her granddaughter out of respect, and herself, since it doesn’t work.
The story also touches on Walt, a young man who has loved Cora forever, as well as other characters who are all lost in the world, seeking love or luck or just comfort, but the main premise revolves around the secrets that Cora and Etta keep from each other-and themselves. Will Cora be able to feel again before it is too late, and will Etta be able to confront her own demons in time to help Cora from herself?
The narrative is a little jumpy, cutting between the various characters without any sort of transition. This is further complicated by a slew of side characters who are all compelling, but may not deserve as much face time as they received. The character development suffered a little from the bouncing of the narrative. I also struggle with the present-tense storytelling, since it feels contrived at times. this is something that Menna van Praag has perfected with time, since it is practically seamless in Witches of Cambridge, but this novel is a little harder to follow.
All in all, this is a light and beautiful read that makes the reader believe in magic, even if just for a breath. Three out of five waves for this airy read, just in time for early beachgoers that brave spring temperatures to catch some rays!