The Dress Shop of Dreams - Menna van Praag

Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires. Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. Cora’s studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her forever. Determined not to allow Cora to miss her chance at happiness, Etta sews a tiny stitch into Walt’s collar, hoping to give him the courage to confess his feelings to Cora. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry. After Walt is spurred into action, Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

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Cora's parents were scientists who both died in a house fire when Cora was very young. Cora grows up to be a scientist herself, wanting to carry on with her parents' work in developing an agricultural system that had the potential to end world hunger. Cora allows herself to become so consumed with her work that she misses the fact that there's this whole other part of her life just waiting to be unlocked, if she could just manage to get out of her own head once in awhile. Cora's grandmother sees it though, mostly through witnessing the swoony looks Cora's bestie Walt keeps throwing her way... to no effect. Walt and Cora grew up together, now Walt runs the bookshop across the street from Cora's grandmother's dress shop. Walt is stumped that they could spend nearly every day together without Cora picking up on even the slightest hint of his romantic interest in her. Cora's grandmother, Etta, is desperately hoping her special brand of magic will finally work on Cora's heart. 

 

Etta runs a special sort of vintage dress shop in that all the dresses seem to pick their owners rather than vice versa. A woman will come into the store with something specific troubling her and Etta will lead said woman to the perfect dress that will help the woman find that special something she needs --- courage to go for a job she wants, or to approach someone she has an interest in, maybe just finding that sense of self-love again, the ability to see your own beauty where you couldn't before. Once the special dress is found, Etta stitches in a little star to lock in the magic so to speak and the customer is off to conquer her new life! But for some reason, the magic never seems to have an effect on Cora, though Etta keeps trying. Etta has her own story of heartbreak that she reveals to the reader little by little, and she's determined not to have the same sadness tarnish Cora's heart.

 

"Wear this dress and you'll find what you're missing: confidence, courage, power, love, beauty, magnificence.." Etta says, "You will, I promise. Wear this dress and it will transform your life." Etta doesn't mention that it might be a bit of a bumpy ride, at least at first. When a woman needs courage, for example, life might throw a few things at her to draw it out. When a woman needs to love herself, she might be lonely while life leaves her without external hearts to hide in. Other things are simplier, like beauty and magnificence, since as soon as a woman slips the dress over her head and stares into the mirror, she instantly feels more beautiful and magnificent than she's ever felt in her life.

 

"Sometimes a painting just needs the right frame to reveal its true beauty."

 

This story had such a wonderful mix of everything that makes reading fun! You got humor, warm family moments between Cora and her grandmother, romance that actually makes you laugh and root for the characters instead of cringing, wanting to throw the book. Van Praag even throws in a little mystery in that Cora has always had a sneaking suspicion there might have been something suspect about the death of her parents. When she actually starts to have it investigated, she uncovers some shocking information about who she thought she could trust! 

 

"One proton of faith, three electrons of humility, a neutron of compassion and a bond of honesty," Robert said, winking at his daughter. 

"What's that?" Cora frowned, confused.

Maggie laughed. "That, according to your father, is the molecular structure of love."

 

The Dress Shop of Dreams is pure, fantastic, whimsical escapism. It's a bit like a modern fairytale, that vein of magical realism running through it, but with a twist! The plot doesn't always follow the arc you might expect, which was part of the fun, actually. :-) It's not all cotton candy fluffness though -- there are some touching heart truths that Van Praag weaves in that I thought gave the story a sense of realness. There are multiple characters who all seem to be grieving something or someone, nursing broken hearts or wounded souls in different ways that keep the plot interesting as you see all these minor stories within the big plot unfold, illustrating how everyone's got their pasts and their secrets to heal. The one issue I had with the minor storylines though is every now and then, the novel would just jump between scenes without a definite sense of a break, which, at times, was frustrating. Silky smooth transitions are so underrated.

 

"You have a wonderful gift, the ability to fill people with a sense of possibility, make us believe in everything, most of all ourselves. Most people think this world we live in is mundane, but you remind us that it's magical. You wrap reality in the wonder and joy of fiction, until it infuses us and becomes true. You're one of life's magicians. You simply haven't realized it yet." ~ Etta to Walt

 

I enjoyed getting to know nearly every character in this story. The one exception to that would be Milly. Her obsession with becoming pregnant at any cost, regardless of how it might mean lying and scheming to get what she wanted, really bothered me. She was a creepy clinger around Walt to boot. Wasn't a big fan of hers. Otherwise, loved this story all the way around and can't wait to get into Van Praag's other works. There was something here that reminded me of Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic (not surprising then, that in her author interview at the end of the book Van Praag mentions Hoffman as one of her favorite authors), and looking over the synopses of Van Praag's other novels, magical realism, at least on some level, seems to be a common thread throughout her writing style -- which I'm all for! :-)