The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle
The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle is a captivating tale about reconnecting with your past in order to have a better future.
When renowned designer Cressida Westcott left her childhood home, she vowed never to return. Her parents had died, her brother Eustace subsequently treated her abominably, and so she struck out on her own and has been wildly successful. Twenty years later, a single bomb does serious damage to her independence. Cressida loses both her elegant townhouse and her design studio in the London Blitz and since she is far from the only one who has suffered such a loss, she finds herself with absolutely nowhere to go. Her friends aren’t close enough for her to move in with, the hotels are full and there is no flat, house or hovel vacant to rent. Since Eustace has died, Cressida screws up her courage and calls Aldhurst Manor, the family estate. Her nephew Hugh isn’t effusively welcoming but he agrees to let her stay. She heads to Aldhurst with only the nightgown she was wearing at the moment of the bombing, her coat and her handbag. She owns literally nothing else except her worries that she won’t be able to rebuild her business.
Violet Westcott has never met her aunt Cressida but she is thrilled when she hears the infamous black sheep of the family is coming to stay at the manor. Violet prizes her beauty above everything else and wartime fashions haven’t exactly made the most of it. Her biggest hope is that her aunt will be able to help her build a new wardrobe which will in turn help Violet catch a new aristocratic fiancée – the last one had foolishly managed to get himself killed in the war. But just as plans of new dresses dance like visions of sugarplums through Violet’s head, a conscription letter arrives in the mail. She is required to do her bit for the current inconvenient conflict and will have to leave for training in the FANYs just days after Cressida arrives. And before then she is expected to put in an appearance at the local Sewing Circle, a unit she nominally heads but which the village do-gooder runs. Surprisingly, Cressida agrees to join Violet on this little adventure and becomes a catalyst that will forever change the small group. And it all begins with one dress.
Vicar’s daughter Grace Carlisle had no idea the effect pulling her mother’s beautiful old wedding gown out of the attic would have on her life. The dress is not only her sole hope for having a white frock for her upcoming nuptials, it will be the only representation of Grace’s mother – who passed away from tuberculosis a decade earlier – at this pivotal ceremony. However, the smock is moth-eaten and Grace has no idea how to repair the damage without new silk – which is unequivocally unavailable. She takes it to the Sewing Circle meeting on the slim hope that the ladies there will have some inkling of what to do. Cressida Westcott’s appearance at the meeting therefore has the feel of a fairy godmother popping out of nowhere to get her ready for the ball. Cressida quickly takes over the project and their joint efforts to repair the gown surprisingly turn Grace from a rather frumpy, dispirited young woman into a luscious beauty who quickly rediscovers the joie de vivre and courage she lost when her mother passed.
Which is a good thing, because her former best friend Hugh, now lord of Aldhurst Manor and head of their small village, looks to be following in his extremely unpopular father’s footsteps – and it seems like only Grace is willing to step up and tell him just what he can do with his attitude of superiority towards their community and the people in it
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of romance novels which have a decidedly women’s fiction vibe, but this one is the opposite – women’s fiction that is for all intents and purposes a romance novel. The narrative follows our three heroines as they come to terms with some of their past life choices and find love along the way.
In the case of Cressida, this means dealing with the fact that the pain caused by her elder brother forced her to build an impenetrable shell which has kept her closed off from others. The bombing and move to Aldhurst help her realize just how lonely she is and how much she longs for community. Being welcomed back by those she grew up with in the village helps her to reclaim the loving, caring part of herself she’d had to leave behind in order to succeed, and she finds herself revitalized as she takes part in village life. Reconnecting with a good friend from childhood reminds her that not all men are like her brother and allows her to open her heart to the idea that her future doesn’t have to be as empty of romance as her past.
Violet’s father convinced her that her sole purpose in life was to be a vapid adornment in some man’s life. Watching the vigor and independence with which Cressida lives her life opens Violet’s mind to the idea she could be so much more. Joining the FANYs and having some sense gently pounded into her by superior officers who come from the working classes finishes her transformation into a bright, capable young woman, something for which I was extremely thankful. The Violet of the first few chapters was not someone I could have spent a whole book with. The new and improved Violet starts to look at men as something more than just a title and of course that helps her to discover love.
Grace has allowed herself to be swallowed by grief. Rather than mourning her mother, Grace essentially took her place, allowing vicarage work to devour her lively spirits and replace them with a placid, serene woman who spent twenty-four hours a day in service to others. She has also allowed herself to become engaged to a man who sees her as little more than a work horse. Cressida helps Grace realize that sometimes the best we have to offer everyone around us is our genuine self.
As the women work on their own love lives, they also begin a project to find wedding dresses for those around them. Wartime rationing has left many brides scrambling for something to wear on their big day and often settling for wearing a uniform or everyday dress. The ladies of the sewing circle begin refurbishing old wedding gowns and lending them out, which turns into quite a popular enterprise.
Ryan’s prose is elegant and engaging, her characterizations rich and wonderful, and her historicity is blended perfectly into her story telling. If you like women’s fiction and tales of the second world war at all, you will love any book written by her including this one.
The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle is a perfect meringue cookie of a book. It is sweet and light and lovely, almost to the point of being too twee. It doesn’t have much depth but if you are looking for something charming and delightful, pick this up.
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I've been an avid reader since 2nd grade and discovered romance when my cousin lent me Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe in 7th grade. I currently read approximately 150 books a year, comprised of a mix of Young Adult, romance, mystery, women's fiction, and science fiction/fantasy.