Saturday, January 4, 2014

First review of the year: The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads): Quiet misfit Rose doesn't expect to fall in love with the sleepy beach town of Leonora. Nor does she expect to become fast friends with beautiful, vivacious Pearl Kelly, organizer of the high school float at the annual Harvest Festival parade. It's better not to get too attached when Rose and her father live on the road, driving their caravan from one place to the next whenever her dad gets itchy feet. But Rose can't resist the mysterious charms of the town or the popular girl, try as she might.

Pearl convinces Rose to visit Edie Baker, once a renowned dressmaker, now a rumored witch. Together Rose and Edie hand-stitch an unforgettable dress of midnight blue for Rose to wear at the Harvest Festival—a dress that will have long-lasting consequences on life in Leonora, a dress that will seal the fate of one of the girls. Karen Foxlee's breathtaking novel weaves friendship, magic, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and distinctly original.

And here's what I thought:  I was completely captivated by this story.  The combination of the exotic (well, exotic to me, at least) setting and the compelling main character made for a page-turning read, that once I finished, I wanted to start all over again.   That doesn't usually happen to me in a book, which makes me glad that this is the last book of the year that I finished, letting me end my reading on a high note.

So let's start with the setting.   Rose and her father move to a small, rural town in Australia, which is described so well by the author that I could feel the humidity closing in on me at times.  Admittedly, I don't like heat and humidity at all, so reading this book sometimes made me want to fan myself (or at least step outside for a moment.  I live in the Chicago area, so it's nice and cold right now).  The town, itself, isn't described so much as some of the parts that are outside of town, like where Rose and her father live, and where the dressmaker's house is.   I've never been to Australia, so I wasn't familiar with some of the plants and animals in the book.  However, this just made me want to look them up, and hope they were all real.

And speaking of settings, the house that Edie (the dressmaker) lives in is a character all unto itself.  The author creates something that seems to be more than a house, almost, where there might just be small bits of magic happening.  It's not the loveliest house; actually, it's far from it.  "The house is falling apart.  There's a tree growing through the front stairs. Everywhere there's the detritus of the forest. The leaves drying in small piles in the corners of rooms and seedpods jammed in the floorboards.  The curtains are dappled with mildew and festooned with spiderwebs." (p. 45-46).  But somehow, despite its condition (and apparent smell, I'd imagine, considering the mildew and constant humidity), it's fascinating.  It's hard to imagine Edie living in it, but at the same time, it's completely appropriate.

The characters are well-written, and not all of them are likable (which is perfectly fine with me - I don't need to like a character, as long as I find them interesting).  Rose is a bit prickly and difficult, and a real opposite to Pearl.  Her home situation is also the opposite of Pearl, so I found it interesting that we have two teen characters who are similar and different, and we have the adults that way, as well.   I liked that not all of the adults were wonderful, and helpful, and supportive.   What I mean is: Rose's father isn't that great of a father, and I liked that he's this way, because it felt more realistic to me.

One of the things that I enjoyed in this book was that there is a story within a story going on here.  You get Rose's story, in the present (more or less), as well as the story that is going on right after someone (actually, two people) go missing.  You get the perspective from Rose, but you also get the perspective from Detective Glass.  I also liked that when Rose meets Edie and gets to know her, that Edie tells her stories of her own life.  So, it's stories wrapped in stories (like a wonderful present in a beautiful box filled with layers of colorful tissue paper).   I wasn't always sure what was going to happen, either, which made it a great read.

This is one of the most beautiful books that I've read, mostly because it's beautifully written, but also because I felt like it was intelligently written.  It made me want to look up things, and places.  It made me imagine things, and it made me feel like I wanted to know some of the characters better.  It made me wonder about what happened to some of them after the book.  It's a talent not all authors have, and one that I really appreciate.

First lines: Will you forgive me if I tell you the ending?  There's a girl.  She's standing where the park outgrows itself and the manicured lawn gives way to longer grass and the stubble of rocks.  She's standing in
no-man's land, between the park and the place where the mill yards begin.

It's night and the cane trains are still.

It is unbearably humid and she feels the sweat sliding down her back and she presses her hands there into the fabric to stop the sensation, which is ticklishly unpleasant.  She lifts up the midnight dress to fan her legs.  It's true, the dress is a magical thing, it makes her look so heavenly.


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