Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Dressmaker by Elizabeth Birkelund Oberbeck

In this romantic debut novel, a reserved provincial French tailor falls head over heels in love with a woman who’s hired him to create her wedding dress. Claude Reynaud is a bit of a throwback, an old-fashioned dressmaker working in a cluttered studio outside modern-day Paris, quietly designing his famous gowns by hand. Every spring he ushers pretty young society brides into his studio, measures them, and designs their dresses without ever contemplating for himself the sort of romance that will lead these ladies and their grooms to the altar.

But one afternoon a woman arrives who shatters his composure: Valentine de Verlay is charming, beautiful, a lady of society, and, of course, engaged. She comes with no instructions for her wedding dress, just a beautiful figure, a long graceful neck, and total faith in her dressmaker. Claude, forty-six years old, devoted to his work, and long since deserted by his wife, finds himself smitten.

As Valentine’s wedding approaches, his commitment to her dress makes it impossible for Claude to keep a safe distance, and everything he’s come to rely on in his small, focused life looks ready to collapse. Worse still, as he is welcomed into her circle of friends and family, it appears that the betrothed Valentine may share his feelings. The Dressmaker is a perfect gem of a novel, an enchanting portrait of another world, and, above all, a sly and irresistible love story.

My take: 3 looks
This summary really misses the mark, in my opinion. At no time did I feel that Valentine shared Claud's feelings for him. He was instantly smitten, quickly morphing into obsession, to the point that he almost forces himself on her at one of their last meetings. Their relationship is not sweet, simple or heartfelt. It is all lust for him, and all father-complex for her.

Adding to this plot is the estranged wife who suddenly appears after 8 years of silence, just in time for Claud to become a famous designer at one of France's most sought-after design houses. Overbearing, over-the-top, greedy, manipulative and grating ... this woman should have been turned on her heel. However, Claud succombs to her omnipresence and allows her to spend freely. Oddly enough, while his actions prove otherwise, he continues to make it clear to her and others that they are separated and getting divorced...all while signing check after check at her whim.

Then there is Lebrais, the owner of the design house. I could never figure out if the house was all-the-rage, or perhaps it had fallen out of favor with a fickle fashion market. In any event, Lebrais was the male version of Claud's wife: verbal, pushy, condescending and manipulative. Once again, Claud talks a big game, but falls in line with Lebrais' demands.

One bristling character I could have overlooked, two I could have handled, but three? I felt no compassion whatsoever for Claud by the end of the book. He deserved to be miserable, alone and a doormat. The saving grace of this book is the descriptions of fashion: the colors, the fabrics and the textures combining to create fabulous outfits.

This was the author's first book, so I will probably give her one more try.

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