The Dressmaker’s War
by Mary Chamberlain
I came across The Dressmaker’s War a while ago when I was looking for one of my book club books, The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott. It looked interesting, so I put a request in. I was way down the line, so literally six months later, I got it. Honestly, while this book was phenomenally well written, the main character, Ada, drove me nuts the entire book! She was selfish, stupid, and never ever learned. So, lots of mixed feelings, but because of the character, I really have to say I didn’t like this book.
Ada is a young, naive mannequin and seamstress at a local dress shop in England right before WWII begins. She is very skilled and reliable until she meets a young man named Stanislaus. He is handsome, gentlemanly, and mysterious. Ada doesn’t tell her parents much about him because she’s afraid they’d judge him because of his accent. She also lies to him about her parents because she doesn’t want him coming over (says they’re unwell). One day he convinces her to skip work to spend the day with him and she almost gets fired. Another time, he asks her to spend some time in Paris with him. She convinces her employer to allow her to shop for samples and doesn’t tell her parents anything. This is right before war comes to France and England, so she and Stanislaus get trapped. Spoilers: they manage ok, traveling a bit when it gets dangerous, but they don’t return to England. Ada believes he contacted her parents and she happily lives as his wife and works so they can survive. Stanislaus never tells her about his work because it “doesn’t concern Ada” and she never pushes it. They live like this for a while until the war gets worse. Stanislaus takes her to Belgium where he soon abandons her without a word. The Germans are coming, so she manages to gain refuge at a monastery. When the Germans arrive to capture anyone whose British, the nuns lie and say she’s one of them (for her protection). All of the nuns are forced to go to Munich to care for elderly Germans. Ada goes with them and after a while discovers she’s pregnant with Stanislaus’ baby. She’s able to hide it and deliver undetected. Sadly, The baby is stillborn (but Ada refuses for years to believe/accept it). She carries on with her work and one older man seeks her out for his own pleasure, getting Ada alone and forcing her to help him masturbate. Finally, he offers her a job as a dressmaker if she’ll have sex with him and she agrees because it is her greatest dream to be a dressmaker – and someday to own her own shop in Paris. Soon after she is sent to a private house and begins years of captivity, forced into hard labor while being starved and beaten. She is also given the job of dressmaker and mender, and that’s what keeps her alive – designing new gowns, making the wearer shine, etc. Even though it’s for Germans, she finds satisfaction in her work, and is truly forced into it whether she liked it or not. Finally, the Americans come and rescue her, but for a while she is tortured by memories and is very ill. She is returned to the nuns who nurse her and soon she’s ready to return to England and her family. She is also determined to make her way as a dressmaker, bringing with her the sewing machine she used during all her years in captivity. When she finally returns to England she finds her old employer’s shop bombed and her father dead (because he thought she was dead). She finds her mother, but her mother is furious that she never told her her plan and never contacted her (Stanislaus never did). Ada tries to explain, but her mother won’t hear a word and will not let her in the house or speak to her again. Ever the optimist, Ada finds a job and apartment, hoping to save money to find her son (she’s still delusional) and build up her own shop. One night she goes out for a drink and gets propositioned. She goes with it, thinking it’s a date, but later realizes she was taken as a prostitute, and that she can make good money: she goes out for drinks and goes home with someone who pays. One day she meets a man who wants her for more than one night. They hit it off and he becomes more and more involved in her life. His keeps his work quiet too, but Ada shrugs it off. He has connections and can get things like nylons that she sells to her friends. They have a nice little business and she considers him her boyfriend, letting him come home with her, etc. One of her friends warns her that he might be a pimp, but Ada ignores her. One night her boyfriend introduces her to his friend (whom she believes is a backer for her dressmaking business dream), who turns out to be Stanislaus. He doesn’t recognize her and neither man is interested in Ada’s business. Her boyfriend is indeed a pimp and has contracted her out to Stanislaus. She has no choice but to bring him home with her. She confronts him about the past, but he is drunk and makes it clear he never cared for her. After he passes out, Ada is furious and decides to kill him. She binds him to the bed, blocks any openings and turns on the gas before leaving for the bar. She gets hopelessly drunk and comes home to the police who arrest her after she confesses to murder. She goes on trial and her lawyer tries to make a case for “manslaughter under the duress of provocation,” but ultimately, the cards are stacked against her and she comes off looking like a pathological liar (which is kind of true). She gets convicted and sentenced to hang, which she does after writing her whole story down of what “really happened.” She writes about her war. I had such a hard time emphasizing with such a stupid, selfish character. I didn’t want her to die, but I wasn’t surprised in a way. It was just an awful storyline from start to finish, even if the writing was amazing.
Summing it up: I did not love this book, though I did enjoy the writing. I would not recommend it, unfortunately.
All the best, Abbey