Book Review: The Dress Shop of Dreams

The Dress Shop of Dreams
Published By: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: December 30, 2014
Page Count: 336
Buy it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or IndieBound
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher via NetGalley
Audience: Adult - Magical Realism

I was attracted to this novel after seeing that it was recommended for fans of Sarah Addison Allen, one of my favorite authors. I love how Allen tackles magical realism and I was excited to see how Menna van Praag would tackle the genre. Writing a strong magical realism novel takes skill and finesse. The magic element can't drive every aspect of the novel; it needs to linger like the smell of a perfume once someone has left the room. The Dress Shop of Dreams is a beautiful story full of compelling characters, romance, and just the right bit of magic.

Etta and Cora start the novel off and quickly became the protagonists in my mind. Etta is an elderly woman who is still full of spunk, beauty, and style. She spends her days creating gorgeous dresses that line the racks of her intriguing little shop hidden away on a small street in Cambridge. Etta's dresses are not only works of art, but they also have a little magic sewn into the seams. The dresses choose their owners and help the women who wear them find their greatest hope. Etta is a dreamer and a believer in magic, but her granddaughter, Cora, has lost the ability to believe in such things. Cora's parents were killed in a tragic fire on her fifth birthday and since that tragic date she has locked away her heart. Cora functions purely on logic and reason. She has no time for emotions or love. Her grandmother and her scientific research are the only things that keep Cora plodding forward through life. 

Cora is not open to possibility which keeps her from noticing the handsome, timid bookseller, Walt. He has always been a fixture in Cora's life, but she takes his presence for granted. Cora doesn't realize that Walt isn't her steadfast friend and purveyor of cherry pie. He is something more for he has loved Cora since the moment he first saw her. He fears that Cora could never return his affections so he keeps them hidden. Like Cora, he is afraid to embrace what could be and continues to flow with the status quo. Both characters will learn a great deal about themselves and love throughout the course of this novel. In addition, I felt a deep connection to Walt. How could I not love a character who cared so deeply for books? He is a kindred spirit.

This is one of those novels that has a rotating cast of characters. I was slightly intimidated by this when I first began reading, but I soon settled into the style and became smitten with almost all of the characters. The chapters feel almost like vignettes, but like the dresses in Etta's store, the threads of each character's story ties together to form a dazzling creation. Some of the connections between characters are obvious while others are more subtle. 

I enjoyed the emphasis on relationships that flows throughout this one. The bond between Etta and Cora was one of the elements that first grabbed my attention, but I quickly grew transfixed by the romantic relationships and the plutonic relationships as well. I loved the intricate details that painted the overall picture of how each of the characters impacted others. I was briefly reminded of Maeve Binchey's writing as she also tended to have multiple characters who interacted with one another through the course of the story. The notion of a main character begins to fade as the reader realizes that all of these people are important.

In addition to the characters and relationships, I was pleasantly surprised that a mystery also runs through this one. Etta is not convinced that Cora's parents died accidentally. Both women decide that it is time to put the past to rest by finding a definitive answer about what happened the night of the fire. This added a new layer to the story that brought a little reality to the magical elements.

Finally, I loved the English setting. I have long craved a trip to England, but sadly have not managed to make that a reality yet. I loved walking the streets of Cambridge with Etta, Cora, and Walt as my guide. I even got a brief visit to Oxford. Menna van Praag might just be the European version of Sarah Addison Allen. While both of these women have beautiful writing styles and stories that dance through the heart and mind, they do share a common thread of bringing a little magic to the mundane.

One Last Gripe: There was a component towards that end that irked me. I didn't agree with Cora and Henry's decision. That's all I can say without spoiling anything.

My Favorite Thing About This Book: I loved the writing in this one. It was gorgeous and magical.

First Sentence: When ordinary shoppers stumble into the little dress shop, they usually leave without buying anything.

Favorite Character: I loved so many, but if I can only choose one, it has to be Etta.

Least Favorite Character: Milly - I was supposed to feel sorry for her, but I thought she was manipulative and whiney. My opinion of her improves in the end, but it took a long time to get there.

For fans of Alice Hoffman, Sarah Addison Allen, and Adriana Trigiani, The Dress Shop of Dreams is a captivating novel of enduring hopes, second chances, and the life-changing magic of true love.

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.


  1. This sounds like such an amazing book!
    And i love the idea of that dress making
    GREAT review
    Your reader,
    Soma R.

    1. I enjoyed this one. Thanks for checking out my review. :)

  2. LOVE how the concept of the book is unique and has both a character-driven element and a unique kind of magic. I agree, magic in these kinds of books needs to be done delicately to let the character drive the plot and it seems the characters are awesome!

    LOVE the romance!

    LOVELY review :)


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