Sunday, June 12, 2022

Summer Reading 2022: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan


If you're looking for gentle World War 2 fiction, Jennifer Ryan is your person. I've read two of her novels and enjoyed them both for the very fact that they are just good historical novels that give a flavor of the time from the women on the home  front. 

This novel takes place in 1942 in the small village of Aldhurst, outside of London. England is deep in World War 2, and rationing is in full force. Not only food, but clothing is in short supply. 

A group of women in the village gather each week to sew and repurpose (the "make do and mend" program) second hand clothing, along with knitting socks for the troops. Violet is the daughter of the manor, and niece to famous clothing designer Cressida Westcott. She's only interested in finding a titled man to marry. 

Cressida's home and shop are bombed in London, and the only place for her to go is her family home in Aldhurst. Reluctant to return to her childhood home, she doesn't have much choice and can't wait to return to London. 

Grace is the vicar's daughter, and engaged to be married to another vicar. It's not a love match, and it's pretty clear her fiancé is looking for a helpmate and not necessarily a wife. She's vaguely unhappy, but believes this is her calling and a way to have a family of her own. 

These three women are the main characters in the novel. There are other players, of course, and it's pretty interesting how much each of the women change over the course of the novel. Violet is petulant and a bit of a brat; she's been conscripted to join the women's war effort and believes her upper class standing will make it a smooth ride for herself. She is wrong. 

Grace runs into Hugh, the lord of the manor (and Violet's brother). Childhood friends who haven't seen each other in years, both are dismayed to find the other completely different from their carefree days as children and best friends. There's more here to unpack, for sure. 

Cressida meets up with Grace's father, Vicar Ben. Cressida's fiancé was killed in World War I and was Ben's best friend. Cressida left Aldhurst to begin her career as a designer and never fell in love again. Ben married, had Grace, and lost his wife. They strike up a friendship again; could it be more than that after all these years?

Besides all the stories going on with these three women, the sewing circle has begun something pretty fantastic and unique: helping women who are getting married have a white wedding dress. Since clothes rations leave little room (as in none!) for special clothing, women are getting married in their uniforms and every day dresses. What starts with Grace's wedding dress blooms into a movement to have wedding dresses available for any woman in the country who is getting married. It's an amazing part of the novel, and brings home the willingness to work together, to share, and give selflessly so others may have even a tiny bit of happiness. There was no "me", it was all "us". 

I liked all the characters and especially the growth of each woman as the six months of the novel go by. A lot of self discovery, confidence building, and understanding of love and the precious time we all have in which to be happy and lead fulfilling lives. 

Kate Quinn's World War 2 novels are a bit more intense than Jennifer Ryan's novels, even though both take place at a dark time for the world. I've read both, and would say Jennifer Ryan's novels are more wholesome and less anxiety inducing! 

Rating: 4/6 for an entirely likable cast of characters, a unique movement in British home front activity, and the message of uniting together and doing what's right for all instead of being selfish. Another theme is discovering the life you want to live and going for it, even if it means leaving the familiar to forge into the unknown. And finally, loving someone for who they are, not what they have. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

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