Rose wanders from town to town around Australia, pulling up stakes whenever her artist father falls into the bottle once again. As a result, Rose is tough and owns only a few t-shirts and jeans, bobby pins to keep her curly hair flat to her head, and her treasured journal, her book of words. When she begins school in the latest northern town, she doesn’t want to make any close friends, but chatty, exuberant Pearl finds a way into her heart: Pearl, who wants to live in Paris, loves trashy novels, and flirts with the 30-something owner of the used bookstore. It’s Pearl who convinces her to have the reputed witch, Edie Baker, make her dress for the Harvest Parade. When Rose arrives at Edie’s moldering mansion, she finds more than just an elderly seamstress. Edie tells stories of young love and a hidden cottage while she teaches Rose to sew the most beautiful dress she has ever imagined.
As this novel opens, a young woman has disappeared and is considered to be murdered, and Detective Glass has been called in to investigate. Rose’s shoes were found at the cane plant, and Rose has not been seen since the Harvest Parade. This unfolding mystery is woven throughout the book at the beginning of each chapter, with the action of the story and the investigation coming together at the conclusion. These two threads, plus the story of Edie’s family that she relates to Rose each week, are like the dress they create: bits of midnight-blue taffeta from one ancient gown, black mourning lace from another, pattern pieces cut from historical newspapers, all combining to create something deeper than one piece of cloth, than one straight narrative, could be. It is the skillful twining together of the fabrics, of the stories, that creates the magic.
Perhaps we only see the best of the best, but Australia has some amazing authors. Markus Zusak wrote the awe-inspiring The Book Thief, among others, boldly experimenting with having a book narrated by Death. Now it’s a major movie, so that was a leap worth taking. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s cute and sweet. He sat on the floor and ate lunch with the giggling girls in our Printz Club at the ALA convention the year The Book Thief won a Printz honor. Melina Marchetta won loads of awards for her realistic fiction year after year, after which she shocked the book world by turning around and writing some of the most stunning high fantasy I’ve ever read. I am a devoted fan. What is in the water over there? Karen Foxlee’s The Anatomy of Wings was also highly decorated, and The Midnight Dress is lush and dreamy, filled with breathtaking writing that makes the reader go back and read passages again, just for the sound of the words. In the very beginning of the novel, I knew that I was in for pure joy when I read this description of the tide that Rose hears when they first arrive at their new home, the Paradise trailer park:
Rose can hear the ocean: the sudden intake of its breath, as though it has remembered something, something terrible, but finding there is nothing it can do, it breathes out again. (p.3)
I’ll never hear the ocean again without thinking that it’s breathing.
Here is Edie’s description of her mother, Florence, when she was young. Florence’s father was a tailor, and she was an exceptional seamstress.
But Florence, she was different, she knew the mysteries of folding and draping and the pleasant secrets of pin-tucking. [She and her brothers went to the creek, and she was afraid to swim.] When she finally let go of the bank and floated away on the river’s back, it had terrified her but also filled her with awe; the way the world was always leaning someway, draining someway, pulling someway. The tides, the moon rising above the rooftops, the water flowing from the mountains to the sea. (pp. 70-71)
This is not a novel for those who love action stories. Although there is a plot, the value of the story is in the interior journey of the characters. It is a book that revels in the words, in the heat of the rain forest, the secrets of families, and the heartbreak of betrayal. The ending is not as unexpected as I think it was meant to be, but it is satisfying, all the same. It’s a treat for readers who love fine writing. Some particularly offensive profanity, so be aware.
Very highly recommended for teens and adults.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.