Dec 28 2014 10:30am

First Look: Menna van Praag’s The Dress Shop of Dreams (December 30, 2014)

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van PraagMenna van Praag
The Dress Shop of Dreams
Ballantine / December 30, 2014 / $15.00 print, $9.99 digital

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.

The foundation of Menna Van Praag's The Dress Shop of Dreams is magic. No matter how pragmatic we are, there is just something so elemental about magic. Maybe it’s in our DNA because we want to believe—in love at first sight, in precognition— and that there is a magical dress in our future that will transform the way we feel about ourselves.

Etta’s dress shop is not for everyone. Regular shoppers who have no need of Etta’s help find it uninspiring. But when a woman who has somehow lost a piece of herself walks in and immediately encounters enchantment.

Now, the dresses don’t magically make the women courageous, or confidence, or powerful, or beautiful. The women don’t miraculously find love. The dresses do give the women a push, a bit of self-confidence that allows them to begin the bumpy journey to be the best they can be, as one customer discovers:

“But there’s this guy I like,” Cheryl says, not seeming to hear, “and I want him to fall in love with me. I thought that was the sort of thing you could help me with, isn’t it?”

Etta smiles. “Not exactly. My dresses aren’t just in the business of making women’s wishes come true, though that often happens.”

Cheryl looks a little crestfallen.

“But,” Etta continues, “if you’ve lost a piece of yourself, wearing your dress will help you find it. My dresses can open your heart to love, if that’s what you need. But I’m afraid they can’t make anyone fall in love with you.”

Too bad Etta’s magic doesn’t work on her granddaughter Cora, with her single minded intensity to change the world—leaving her with no friends, no social life and no laughter. When Cora was five years old, both her parents died and after that she emotionally shut down, finding contentment with her grandmother, and her love of science. But Etta now knows that if she fails to act, life will pass her granddaughter by, and she can’t let that happen.

And while magic is what drew me to the book, the characterization is what kept me turning the pages. The Dress Shop of Dreams features wonderful, genuine characters. Characters like Cora and Walt, two socially inept people learning to take risks and let love into their lives.

Now, most of us love reading about drop-dead-gorgeous heroines and heroes. It’s a wonderful fantasy. Having good looks is an entry way to acceptance, although that doesn’t always mean an easy life. But there is just something so endearing when you read a story about average people—people who don’t have that certain cache that draws others. These characters, with their insecurities, their shyness, their tentativeness touch a chord. Because even if we’re confident and assured we’ve felt these same emotions. We’ve had these stumbles.

Both Walt and Cora have shared experiences. Walt never knew his mother. Cora lost her parents at an early age. Walt has an intense pull toward literature:

He had stepped into a kingdom: an oak labyrinth of bookshelves, corridors and canyons of literature beckoning him, whispering enchanting words Walt had never heard before. The air was smoky with the scent of leather, ink and paper, caramel-rich and citrus-sharp. Walt stuck out his small tongue to taste this new flavor and grinned, sticky with excitement. And he knew, all of a sudden and deep in his sour, that this was a place he belonged more than any other.

Walt feels the same pull toward Cora. In fact, she is the reason he finally speaks:

Hours later, staggering along the passage with armfuls of books, Walt had glanced up at another shop window to see two bright green eyes and mop of blond curls peeking out under a beaked hem. The eyes blinked as he stared and the sad little mouth opened slightly. Walt stopped.

“Come on, Wally,” his father had called, “we’re late for dinner.”

“But Daddy,” Walt protested, “I want to see the girl.”

His father had dropped the books then, pages fluttering to his feet. Tears filled his eyes and fell down his cheeks. Four years of silence, of doctors, specialists and speech therapy. Four years of nothing and now a whole sentence, in an instant. It was a miracle.

With two scientist parents, it no surprise that Cora is enthralled with all its potentials. As a child her parents used to take her with them when they worked in the biochemistry lab. She attended conferences with them and she ate her meals in the university canteen. Cora knew her place in life from an early age:

“What’s your name?”

“Walt,” he offered quietly, expecting her to retort that his was an even sillier name, but she didn’t.

“After the scientist?”

Walt frowned, thrown. “What scientist?”

Cora shrugged. “Maybe Luis Walter Alvarez or Walter Reed, but . . . actually Walter Sutton is the most famous. He invented a theory about chromosomes and the Mendelian laws of inheritance.” . . .

“No,” Walt interrupted, “I’ve never heard of any of them.”

“Oh,” Cora folded her arms and tilted her nose upward, “Then who are you named after?” she asked, as it was a given.

“Walt Whitman, he retorted, “The poet?“

Cora considered this for a moment then shrugged again . . . “That’s okay, I guess. But poems, stories and that stuff are a waste of time anyway. They don’t answer any questions. They don’t help anyone.”

. . . “Don’t you like reading at all?”

“What a silly question,” she said, and then seemed to regret it and was kinder. “I have to read to find things out. I’m studying to be a scientist,” she added. “When I grow up I’m going to save the world.”

The role reversal of the logical heroine only interested in facts and figures, and the dreamy beta hero captivated by literary works is a big plus too.

The definition of Yin and yang is that they are complementary, interdependent opposites, neither of which can exist without the other. You’re in for a treat as you follow Walt’s and Cora’s discovery of how true this is.


Learn more about or order a copy of Dress Shop of Dreamsby Menna van Praag, available December 30:

Buy at Amazon

Buy at B&N

Buy at iTunes

Buy at IndieBound



Scarlettleigh, blogger

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Lee Brewer
2. LeeB.
Sounds really good; I put it on hold at the library.
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