Book Review: A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff

Do fairytale dresses bring fairytale endings? Every dress has a history, so does Phoebe! Phoebe always dreamt of opening her own vintage dress shop. She imagined every detail, from the Vivienne Westwood bustiers hanging next to satin gowns, to sequined cupcake dresses adorning the walls. At the launch of Village Vintage, Phoebe feels the tingle of excitement as customers snap up the fairytale dresses. Her dream has come true, but a secret from her past is casting a shadow over her new venture. Then one day she meets Therese, an elderly Frenchwoman with a collection to sell, apart from one piece that she won’t part with ! As Therese tells the story of the little blue coat, Phoebe feels a profound connection with her own life, one that will help her heal the pain of her past and allow her to love again.

To be honest,from the stunning cover of this book, I was expecting something fluffy and glamorous with lots of descriptions of beautiful designer gowns. I got the gowns in abundance, sometimes in too much detail, but what I wasn’t expecting was a deep and slightly harrowing sad story and a bit of a mystery to be solved too.

I loved the friendship which develops between Phoebe and Therese, it really is beautiful. Both women’s stories of betrayal and guilt are touching and not always as you expect. There were a number of times throughout the book when I thought I knew which way things were headed, or knew how something had came about only to be proved wrong. Therese’s story in particular is shocking and stunning, and a theme I was not at all expecting to find in what seemed a glaringly obvious chick-lit. As she tells Phoebe the story and her regret, Phoebe is eager to solve the mystery and bring peace to her new friend and I found this element intriguing. It’s not a thrilling mystery full of fear and suspense, but I was still captivated by it and eager to find out.

Through Phoebe’s customers a number of sub plots are introduced. I really liked the individual little stories that came in here, some would only last a page while others wove in and out of the story. These little stories really brought to life the beauty of vintage ball gowns, each dress having it’s own history and inspiring and empowering the modern women who fall in love with them. I really could relate to most of these women and their story.

I don’t know if Isabel Wolff had a keen interest in vintage clothing before writing this novel, she certainly comes across as being quite passionate about her subject. It is clear that she researched meticulously though, and I did find at times she become too absorbed in describing the garments and their designers, distracting the reader from the plot. I found myself skimming over some descriptions and was always eager to return to Therese’s story. It wasn’t just the clothing where I found the book wandering into over detail either. At times a seemingly ridiculous amount of time was spent telling somewhat irrelevant events. One such example was when Phoebe takes part in a radio interview promoting her new shop. This covered 4 pages and was the complete script from the fictional interview, which may have been interesting if listening to it on the radio while stuck in traffic, but was tedious to read. It also held no real relevance to the story and a brief mention would have sufficed. Again, I found myself skimming over such sections. The book is 420 pages long and I do feel it could have been cut by around 50 pages.

Of course no chick-lit novel would be complete with 2 potential love interests to puzzle over, and we are not disappointed in A Vintage Affair. There’s Miles, the dashing, rich, sophisticated ‘older’ man with a teenage spoilt brat from hell in tow, and the dishevelled, amusing, caring and down to earth Dan. This follows a predictable tried and tested path, but I’m not complaining…it’s what we girls want from our chick-lit right? The other chick-lit staple also not emitted from this novel is the dizzy Mother of Phoebe, full of neurosis’s and age crisis’s. Lot’s of chick-lit seem to have the same personality for the main characters Mother (Bridget Jones and Shopaholic are 2 that spring to mind) and are characters I do not relate too at all! My mother is nothing like these upper middle class, vain an neurotic house wives and I do find this portrayal of 50-60 year old women a bit annoying.

Criticisms aside this is a very good novel. Isabel Wolff is an accomplished writer, and it shows. Her characters and plots have more depth than the standard chick-lit authors. She weaves various different story lines effortless so that I never found the book difficult to follow. I did find this an easy read, but one with a heartfelt and intriguing original plot which surprised me often throughout. I found it emotional at times, welling up with tears on a couple of occasions. I cared deeply about the main characters, Phoebe and Mrs. Bell, empathising with both of their stories and hoping they found the peace they deserved. I even felt the smaller characters in the sub plots were drawn well enough for me to care about them and their stories.

My Rating: 4