Shelf Control #236: The Gown by Jennifer Robson

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Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

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Title: The Gown
Author: Jennifer Robson
Published: 2018
Length: 371 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding

London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.

Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?

With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy in January 2019.

Why I want to read it:

I read so many stellar reviews when this book first came out. I don’t always love dual timeline historical fiction, but the synopsis for this book really intrigued me. After watching seasons 1 and 2 of The Crown, I’m very interested in learning more about Queen Elizabeth’s royal wedding. This novel’s focus on the people behind the scenes of the wedding preparations makes this sound like a really special read.

Plus, this is a good reminder for me to get caught up on The Crown season 3 before season 4 is released in November!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Book Review: Mrs. Queen Takes The Train

Book Review: Mrs. Queen Takes The Train by William Kuhn

In this terrific, warm-hearted novel, life at the palace just isn’t what it used to be, and The Queen seems to have come down with a case of the blahs. Relegated to a role that is mostly ornamental, and still heart-broken over the family disasters of the last decade or so, The Queen goes through her days doing as she ought. She was raised to always follow directions and live up to expectations, and that she does, day in and day out. But what about happiness? What about feeling useful? Mostly, The Queen feels like too much has passed her by, and as she struggles to keep up with her new acquaintances Mr. Google and Miss Twitter, the poor dear mostly winds up out of sorts and at loose ends. When, by chance, The Queen finds herself outside the palace walls, unaccompanied and cleverly (although accidentally) disguised in a borrowed hoodie, she gets an unexpected taste of freedom and makes a mad dash toward a day of adventure.

A cast of supporting characters, all rather isolated in varied ways and yet united in service to The Queen, round out the story nicely. There’s Shirley, long-tenured dresser to the Queen who harbors a lingering resentment toward the upper-class ladies who treat servants of her status with scorn; Lady Anne, hanging onto the title despite having lost all fortune and family, living off her meager allowance as The Queen’s chief lady-in-waiting; Luke, a young military officer who ably serves The Queen but is tormented by lingering traumas from his time in Iraq; William, senior butler, devoted to a life of service but hungry for love as well; Rebecca, the lonely, insecure, but beautiful caretaker of The Queen’s horses; and Rajiv, would-be poet and current shopboy, who just happens to sell The Queen’s very favorite cheddar.

As The Queen sets off on a jaunt toward Scotland to visit a place of happy memories, she encounters the men and women of her kingdom and, for the first time in her life, has conversations with ordinary people, unhindered by social protocol and formalities. As The Queen takes taxis, buses, and trains, she is in her element as her years of official socializing pay off. She meets people, she engages them in conversation, she draws them out, she makes them feel interesting. This is something she is good at! By the end, The Queen has regained a new spring in her step, and though she returns to her regular life without much fuss, it’s clear that she’s going to shaking things up a bit in the days to come.

I loved the writing in Mrs. Queen Takes The Train. Early on, this sentence gave me a good sense of the fun yet to come:

She stalked toward the computer on the other side of the room as if it were game and she meant to shoot it.

An ongoing theme throughout the book is The Queen’s yoga practice — which of course made me wonder, does the real Queen do yoga too? It certainly seems beneficial to the fictional Queen, and I was highly amused picturing her in plank or warrior pose.

I should make clear that this is by no means a silly book, although there’s certainly much warmth and humor here. Yes, it’s kind of funny to think about the Queen of England taking public transportation, running around in borrowed hoodies, and having to dig through her ubiquitous handbag for train fare. But within Mrs. Queen Takes The Train is a deeper thread of inner life. All of the characters, in their own ways, are lonely people, devoted in one way or another to their roles and positions, but missing out on meaningful human connection. The pains and sorrows of growing older, the isolation of never finding love, the ache that can arise from loss that’s kept hidden inside — all are dealt with sensitively and realistically. The characters in this book may live in a castle, but all — even The Queen herself — come across as real people with real crises, and you can’t help but love them all quite a bit by the time the book is through.

As an American reading Mrs. Queen Takes The Train, I was unfamiliar with many of the titles and idioms related to palace life and the monarchy in general. Thank goodness for the internet — I now know what an equerry is! (Do you?)  I know that for many in the US, the British monarchy is viewed as an amusing old token of days gone by, not good for much more than celebrity photo shoots, mildly interesting gossip and scandal, and the occasional big hoopla of a royal wedding. Mrs. Queen Takes The Train does a wonderful job of showing how the royal family influences and is influenced by English modern society, and the role they serve in maintaining tradition and a link to living history.

I enjoyed Mrs. Queen Takes The Train very much, for its gently amusing story line, its warm and lovely characters, and its peek behind the castle walls. We can only wonder whether The Queen’s inner life, as portrayed so richly and movingly here, relates in any way to the experiences of the real Queen of England. Still, I walked away from reading this book with a renewed fondness for Her Majesty — long live The Queen!