“The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding” by Jennifer Robson (William Morrow) 400 pages, $16.99
When Princess Elizabeth's engagement to Philip Mountbatten was announced in 1947, her wedding dress was the subject of speculation and intrigue in war-exhausted England.
English designer Norman Hartnell was given the commission, and the gown was a Botticelli-inspired work of art. It's the work behind that art that forms the through-line of Jennifer Robson's compelling and informative novel.
Robson is skilled at creating drama; the braided narrative shifts among three protagonists: Ann Hughes, a 25-year-old embroiderer in Hartnell's London workroom; Miriam Dassin, a French emigre and Holocaust survivor who becomes Ann's co-worker and friend; and Ann's Canadian granddaughter, Heather, who receives – after her grandmother's death in 2016 – a box of exquisite, embroidered flowers and sets out to discover their significance and her grandmother's secret past.
The story spans 70 years, as the embroiderers' fates diverge. Part of the pleasure of the novel is to see how lives unfurl over nearly a century – and to learn the secrets that the characters never will.
At its best, the novel is a gripping portrait of the aftermath of a war too often romanticized in American fiction and film; the privations of global conflict and its lingering weight make vivid both the hardship and the unequal distribution of suffering.
What most charms is Robson's portrait of the work itself: “Miss Duley's eye was infallible: if a bead sat in the wrong direction, or one strand of satin stitch sat proud of the rest, or even one sequin was duller than its neighbors, she would notice ... and her left eyebrow would arch just so.”
Occasionally plot twists come out of nowhere (serendipitous meetings, sudden villainy), and the plotting seems effortful when Heather ponders what the reader is clearly meant to: “ 'If [Grandmother Ann] wanted to leave everything behind, then why did she bring these embroideries with her? ... Why didn't she ever show them to us?' ... What if, in searching for answers, [Heather] discovered something unsettling, even disturbing?”
The novel stumbles in its glancing treatment of the Holocaust, which risks becoming narrative window-dressing. And Robson strains to evoke Heather's millennial sensibility. Heather seems a cliché of intellectual imprecision and entitlement, benumbed by comfort, a foil for her hard-working, highly skilled forebear.
For all that, Robson succeeds in creating a riveting drama of female friendship, of lives fully lived despite unbearable loss and of the steadfast effort required to bring forth beauty after surviving war.
Historical fiction is fraught terrain. Leo Tolstoy was nervous about getting the details right when he penned “War and Peace”; George Eliot dismissed the whole genre as “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” As Alexander Chee notes in his 2016 essay for the New Republic, “Children of the Century,” the historical novel has experienced a resurgence since the 1990s, which makes me wonder if we look to the past when we're uneasy about the future.
Writing from history, facts can eclipse character, as occasionally happens here.
But like the accumulation of satin appliqué flowers, sequins, seed pearls, crystal beads and invisible stitches on Princess Elizabeth's wedding dress, “The Gown” grows weighty, impressive, captivating as its details build.
For fans of “The Crown,” looking for history served up as intimate drama, and those seeking another angle on royal lives, “The Gown” seems likely to dazzle and delight.
E.J. Levy is the author of “Love, in Theory,” which won the Flannery O'Connor Prize. She reviewed this book for the Washington Post.