The Perfect Dress
Mitzi Taylor, Jody Andrews and Paula own a custom wedding dress shop for plus-sized women – the titular Perfect Dress – which is pretty ironic considering none of them have ever been married. Paula is a superstitious half-Cajun who believes in curses, Jody’s come the closest to actually achieving marriage – she’s been in a relationship with Lyle since they were both in high school but they don’t feel the need to make it legal, and Mitizi, plus sized and happy, is comfortable in her own skin but only got there recently – the slings and arrows of judgmental jerks, naturally, still hurt. All the ladies have Mitzi’s maternal grandmother, the sassy, overall-wearing Fanny Lou to lean on; she considers herself a silent partner in the business but provided most of the seed money that got them started. For the first time, the girls have a shot at a booth at the Dallas Bridal Fair, and excitement ripples through their establishment – which is good, because Mitzi gave up exclusive employ in an Amarillo bridal salon, Jody her waitressing job and Paula quit being a librarian to run the store. All of them are living hand to mouth, waiting for things to take off.
Graham Harrison just moved home to Celeste, Texas with his plus-sized twin daughters Tabby and Dixie in order to get away from the bullying that had been plaguing them. Dixie replied to that bullying by punching one of her mocker’s lights out, and to avoid an immediate suspension Graham pulled her out of the school instead. Preparing to attend their absent mother’s friend’s wedding, Graham heads to The Perfect Dress to get the girls something in bubblegum pink. It turns out Graham graduated high school the same year Mitzi entered it as a freshman, which smooths the path before them slightly.
Mitzi once had a crush on Graham – well, her and their entire school. And since he’s being nice why not date him?
When Jody’s seemingly rock-solid relationship with Lyle is shaken to its foundation by an affair (his), the girls move her into their shared house, and then defend her against her nightmarish mother and the threat that Lyle will force her into selling him their shared land and trailer so he can build a home for his new wife. Meanwhile, Paula is six months pregnant by a married man who’s gone back to the wife he only had a legal separation from and has now impregnated. And with whom has a three-year old as well. Paula must choose between naming the father of her child or keeping her ex’s innocent wife from learning the truth about his affair. Will success and happiness come to the women of The Perfect Dress?
Romance desperately needs fat heroines. I just want to put that in full bold, as a big ol’ fat romance reviewer. I’m what the book calls a ‘big girl’ and I yearn to read about bigger heroines, but The Perfect Dress fits Carolyn Brown’s comfortable formula of small hometowns, little churches, complicated lives and good food to too much of a T; as I said back when I read Strawberry Hearts Diner, it’s like a good three-hankie weepie film. But this time the formula veered a little too close to being repetitive for my taste – and the characters fell far over the line dividing relatable southern characters from cartoonish stereotypes.
What’s good is as good and reliable as it always is in Brown’s work. The feeling of her small town, and the simplicity of Mitzi and Graham’s relationship are tackled effortlessly, as always. Graham’s sweaty gentlemanliness and his desperation to do well by his daughters and by Mitzi was cute, but I wish I could say the same for Jody’s romance with Quincy, a man who’s interested in buying her land, but it’s pretty bland. The womens’ friendship is also lovely and felt very true to life.
Our heroines are, at the very least, likable. Mitzi is a good solid center for the novel, the lynchpin around which everyone turns, and Jody and Paula – in spite of Paula’s none-too-useful superstition – are at turns charming. But Jody’s entire storyline is a total mess. I found it incredibly hard to believe that she didn’t know that the man she’d been with for over seventeen years was cheating on her with a woman half her age in a town as small as Celeste. People in towns that small know when a dog breaks wind, and yet the affair remains fully under wraps for six months?! I wasn’t convinced. And as for Paula – well, it takes over a hundred pages for Paula’s plot to kick in. A lot of Paula’s presence in the plot feels like an afterthought, right down to her meeting her hero in the epilogue.
The way the book handles its plus sized characters is a bit uneven. Mitzi, Dixie, Paula and Tabby all show off different experiences larger women go through – from bullying to self-recrimination to tough defiance to self-denial and self-esteem issues – but although I was happy that the author didn’t designate any foods ‘bad foods’, there was an over-focus on scenes of the women indulging in sweets and fat-laden foods, enough to make this plus-sized reviewer squirm a bit at the stereotype. No, I don’t always have a donut in my mouth, I don’t always need ‘one more ice cream’ bar to cope with life. Also as a big girl – no, we don’t constantly talk about being ‘big girls’, and people don’t consistently describe us as being the same across every single spectrum of human experience.
The two teenage kids are another problem. Dixie and Tabby are rebellious enough to want revenge on society – and who can blame them? – but I didn’t buy their other side; the sunshiny happiness that so entrances the three seamstresses feels like it belongs to a pair of kids younger than their years. Dixie and Tabby’s presence even causes Mitzi to start talking about having babies! And then there’s their mother, who just basically exists – along with the women that Paula and Jody’s men are attached to, and pretty much every mother figure but Fanny Lou – as a straw person to point out that in this universe thin and young people are generally evil. Now, saying that fat women are beautiful is a wonderful thing, but the utter lack of nuance in the villains in the book renders characters like Rita flatter than her nonexistent curves.
Carolyn Brown has been on a wonderful winning streak over her last few novels. Sadly, I can’t add The Perfect Dress to that pile, though I really wish I could.