Book Review: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan

Title: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: May 31, 2022
Print length: 432 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Three plucky women lift the spirits of home-front brides in wartime Britain, where clothes rationing leaves little opportunity for pomp or celebration–even at weddings–in this heartwarming novel based on true events, from the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.

After renowned fashion designer Cressida Westcott loses both her home and her design house in the London Blitz, she has nowhere to go but the family manor house she fled decades ago. Praying that her niece and nephew will be more hospitable than her brother had been, she arrives with nothing but the clothes she stands in, at a loss as to how to rebuild her business while staying in a quaint country village.

Her niece, Violet Westcott, is thrilled that her famous aunt is coming to stay–the village has been interminably dull with all the men off fighting. But just as Cressida arrives, so does Violet’s conscription letter. It couldn’t have come at a worse time; how will she ever find a suitably aristocratic husband if she has to spend her days wearing a frumpy uniform and doing war work?

Meanwhile, the local vicar’s daughter, Grace Carlisle, is trying in vain to repair her mother’s gown, her only chance of a white wedding. When Cressida Westcott appears at the local Sewing Circle meeting, Grace asks for her help–but Cressida has much more to teach the ladies than just simple sewing skills.

Before long, Cressida’s spirit and ambition galvanizes the village group into action, and they find themselves mending wedding dresses not only for local brides, but for brides across the country. And as the women dedicate themselves to helping others celebrate love, they might even manage to find it for themselves.

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle is now the 4th book I’ve read by Jennifer Ryan, and like her earlier books, it presents a warm-hearted look at the homefront challenges and triumphs of women during wartime.

The year is 1942, London is being terrorized by air raids, and in the countryside, families are making do with less and less. Even clothing is rationed — materials are prioritized for the benefit of the war effort, so the local sewing circles are forced to become skilled at repairing and reworking the clothing that they do have.

In the village of Aldhurst, the vicar’s 24-year-old daughter is soon to be married. Grace and her widowed father find her mother’s wedding dress stored away, but the years have not been kind to the once-beautiful gown. Grace is looking forward to her marriage to a young curate, although she’s mostly motivated by duty and a need to be useful to the parish rather than by sentiments of true love.

But when Cressida, a famous designer whose home and business are both destroyed in a night-time bombing raid, returns to her family’s manor in Aldhurst, life in the village starts to change. Cressida lends her skills to the local sewing circle, encourages Grace to think bigger and explore her own talents, and even manages to get her niece Violet to see that there’s more to life than being the pretty little wife of an aristocrat.

As the women spend time together, they become tightly bonded, and manage to find creative inspiration in their sewing projects, eventually coming up with the idea of organizing what’s essentially a wedding dress lending library. Soon, women from all across Britain are donating their wedding dresses, and eager brides are now able to have the beautiful weddings they’ve dreamed of, rather than getting married in uniforms or practical clothing.

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle focuses on friendship and finding purpose. The women at the heart of the book all, in their own ways, reevaluate the assumptions they’ve made about their lives and find different, more meaningful paths for themselves. Through Cressida’s example, they learn to think differently, challenge expectations, and pursue careers and lives that are more fulfilling than what they’d thought they should want or expect.

I enjoyed getting to know the main characters and seeing each of them blossom in different ways. Each has a love story as well, none of which run particularly smoothly — but never fear, there are plenty of happy endings to go around.

As in her other books, Jennifer Ryan uses village life and characters to portray the effects of war on ordinary people. Her characters aren’t out risking their lives on battlefields or engaging in high-stakes espionage; these are the everyday women and men who must do the best they can in the face of shortages and hardships, holding on to their homes, their friends, and their communities the best they can. The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle is a portrait of a generous community, whose individuals come together to not just make do, but make better.

This is a gentle read, with drama on the more intimate and personal side. While the opening scenes of Cressida’s experiences in the air raid are very frightening and dramatic, and while there’s another incident later on of an air raid on a neighboring village that’s also quite scary and intense, the rest of the book is quieter and more restrained. The focus is on day to day life and the people of the village — the war is the constant backdrop, but it’s filtered through the experiences of the women and families on the homefront.

I enjoyed The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle very much. In fact, my only slight complaint is that it seems to echo the author’s other books in certain ways, so that the overall story feels less fresh this time around. In three of the four books of hers that I’ve now read, the main story is about plucky women in a small town who come together to make it through the war years — in one book, it’s about a choir, in another, a cooking competition, and here, a sewing group. The plots arcs and characters here feel familiar, not because we’ve seen them before, but because the overall tone is so similar to those of her previous novels.

That said, I did think it was an engaging, often moving read, and I enjoyed seeing the characters grow and change over the course of the story. Jennifer Ryan has a gift for bringing out the beauty in simple lives, and I always enjoy her light touch when it comes to dialogue and banter.

If you enjoy historical fiction, especially historical fiction focused on women’s lives, don’t miss The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle!

Book Review: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan

From the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir comes a thrilling new WWII story about a village busybody—the mighty Mrs. Braithwaite—who resolves to find, and then rescue, her missing daughter

Mrs. Braithwaite, self-appointed queen of her English village, finds herself dethroned, despised, and dismissed following her husband’s selfish divorce petition. Never deterred, the threat of a family secret being revealed sets her hot-foot to London to find the only person she has left—her clever daughter Betty, who took work there at the first rumbles of war.

But when she arrives, Betty’s landlord, the timid Mr. Norris, informs her that Betty hasn’t been home in days–with the chaos of the bombs, there’s no telling what might have befallen her. Aghast, Mrs. Braithwaite sets her bullish determination to the task of finding her only daughter.

Storming into the London Blitz, Mrs. Braithwaite drags the reluctant Mr. Norris along as an unwitting sidekick as they piece together Betty’s unexpectedly chaotic life. As she is thrown into the midst of danger and death, Mrs. Braithwaite is forced to rethink her old-fashioned notions of status, class, and reputation, and to reconsider the question that’s been puzzling her since her world overturned: How do you measure the success of your life?

Readers will be charmed by the unforgettable Mrs. Braithwaite and her plucky, ruthless optimism, and find in The Spies of Shilling Lane a novel with surprising twists and turns, quiet humor, and a poignant examination of mothers and daughters and the secrets we keep. 

Jennifer Ryan is the author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, one of my favorite reads of the past couple of years — and she strikes gold yet again with her newest novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane. Here, we meet the intimidating Mrs. Braithwaite, pushed out of her leadership position with her village women’s volunteer corps after one too many criticisms and commands aimed at the other women. Feeling utterly rejected, Mrs. Braithwaite decides to go visit her 21-year-old daughter Betty, who left the village to take up a clerical position in London, seeking excitement and a sense of purpose during wartime.

However, when Mrs. Braithwaite arrives at Betty’s lodging house, she finds out that no one has seen her daughter in at least four days, and while no one else seems particularly panicked, Mrs. Braithwaite is sure that Betty must need rescuing. And nobody stands between Mrs. Braithwaite and her daughter! She sets out to find her daughter, coercing poor Mr. Norris to help her out, and uses her cyclone energy to push, demand, and bully people into giving her information.

It turns out that her motherly instincts were indeed correct and Betty is in trouble, of a sort that Mrs. Braithwaite could not have anticipated. And despite the tumultuous, strained relationship between mother and daughter, Mrs. Braithwaite charges into action to save Betty, only to end up needing saving in return.

What follows is a rollicking adventure, full of can-do spirit as well as intrigue and double-crossing. Mrs. Braithwaite is an absolute delight as a main character. How many books do we get to read that feature a 50-something-year-old proper Englishwoman as an action hero? She is just a force of nature, and will not let anyone stand in the way of her taking care of her daughter. Of course, Betty is far from helpless, as Mrs. Braithwaite learns, and between the two of them, we see a pair of strong women whose courage makes a difference in the British war effort.

The Spies of Shilling Lane has a light-hearted feel at times, as the action sequences aren’t simply smooth Jame Bond maneuvers, but rather are full of errors and accidents and fumbling about. Mrs. Braithwaite and Mr. Norris are such an unlikely pair of secret agents, tracking down clues, picking locks, and befriending the local criminal element, all in pursuit of a rather nasty bunch of evil-doers. At the same time, the reflections on the mother-daughter relationship, the pressures of societal expectations, and the damage that can be done by overbearing family members are all well described and add resonance to the characters’ feelings and reactions.

It’s also incredibly harrowing and moving to see the air raids and the devastation that results, and I first found myself really loving Mrs. Braithwaite because of her interactions with an injured young woman whom she discovers as she’s searching for Betty.

All in all, I’d say that The Spies of Shilling Lane is an excellent look at remarkable women during wartime. There are plenty of moments that made me smile, as well as scenes of tension and suspense. Mrs. Braithwaite is so delightful — I’d love to read about more of her adventures!

If you enjoy women-centered historical fiction, definitely check this one out!


The details:

Title: The Spies of Shilling Lane
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: June 4, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley