The Dress by Kate Kerrigan is a delightful read. The quote at the beginning of the book immediately sets the tone of the novel: It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness. (Leo Tolstoy)
The story begins with a Prologue set in Ireland in 1935, where John Conlon, a teacher and his wife Clare take in abandoned 15-year-old Francis Fitzpatrick, making him feel safe and loved. Yet, Francis has made up his mind early to begin a new life in America to seek his fortunes; and so he steals money from the couple.
Chapter 1 is set in London, 2014, introducing vintage fashion blogger Lily Fitzpatrick, No 43 in the Top 50 Most Influential Voices. She is down-to-earth, sharp and funny. She finds out that her 90-year-old grandfather Joe has a connection to Francis (who changed his name to Frank) and his wife Joy Royson.
Henceforth, the novel flits fluently between the two time periods, from telling the background story about Frank’s father’s violence, his mother’s death and how he came to leaving his baby brother behind and stealing from the Conlons, to how he survived the first five years in America before he started a property empire to become a successful, urbane New York businessman and how he met Joy, who is the only child from a privileged family and has a passion and penchant for commissioning stylish clothes.
Honor Conlon is introduced in Chapter 8; she is a seamstress who is both eccentric and artistic, and works on the collar of a dress for Joy. Honor loves design and Joy is so impressed by her work that she commissions her to make the dress. Joy and Honor develop a strong working relationship but which also result in an affair between Honor and Frank, who eventually asks Joy for a divorce to make an honest woman of Honor. Honor miscarries in her sixth month, on their wedding day. Honor has to live with her guilt, made worse by a letter of apology from Joy. She divorces Frank who keeps looking for her, even at the novel’s end.
In the meantime, Lily tries to find out all she can about Joy (and the dress). Among other things, she discovers that Frank, her granduncle, died the year she was born, Honor had destroyed the dress by setting fire to it, and also divorced Frank.
The story of high fashion, wealth, beauty and romance is skillfully combined with more serious issues. For example, a passage reads: It takes talent and tenacity to make beautiful things but it takes courage to let them go. It takes courage to fail at love, not to be perfect. Beauty is only a temporary joy and it has tight boundaries. Love and friendship are the only things that can set people free from perfectionist prisons but it is not easy.
It has been such an enjoyable read that I must look out for other books by Kate Kerrigan.