THE TAILOR’S GIRL
Author: Fiona McIntosh
Michael Joseph RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Sigh. Fiona McIntosh has done it again … snagged my heart, made me cry, given me a memorable story, and reminded me why I love, not like, reading. Her latest novel, The Tailor’s Girl, is everything I want in a curl-up-on-the-sofa read – captivating storyline, strongly-drawn characters, intrigue and anticipation, hope and sadness, romance and conflict … and more. It’s been on my review shelf for a while and I just had to bump it up. Now that it’s over, I want to read it again … ever do that?
Set in post-WWI London, the story begins when a soldier, dubbed Jones, wakes in a military hospital with no recollection of his past apart from flashbacks to the battlefield of Ypres. He meets Eden Valentine, a stunning seamstress mourning the loss of her brother, and asks her for help; she takes him to her father’s house where he is given food, a temporary place to stay and a job. Her act of kindness changes everything in both their lives. Tom, as Eden now calls him, impresses Eden’s father, renowned tailor Abe Valentine, with his business acumen, but his obvious high regard for Eden does not go unnoticed by Abe. The tailor’s girl is promised to another man, Benjamin Levi, and Abe intends to keep that promise. Eden has other ideas. She loves Benjamin only as a brother and knows instinctively that Tom is meant to be in her life; unlike Ben, Tom supports her dream of owning her own high-end salon.
When Tom goes missing in London, Eden is heart-broken. Yet she refuses to give up on the notion that he will find his way back to her. Encouraged by a good friend, Madeleine, Eden sets up her dream salon in London, vowing that she will one day find the key to Tom’s past. As she makes a bridal gown for Penelope Aubrey-Finch, the sweet fiancee of wealthy Alex Wynter, Eden has no idea that the truth is within her grasp. But will the truth tear their lives apart?
The Tailor’s Girl is an exquisite story that just bursts from the pages and leaps into your heart. McIntosh has created the atmosphere of 1920s London beautifully; I could almost see the bustling streets and hear the voices on the street – I felt as though I was there with the characters. Still recovering from the war that took so many men and the Spanish flu that claimed whoever it wanted, most Londoners are cautiously stepping forward, almost but not quite ready to cast off restraint. That cautiousness came across beautifully in McIntosh’s writing, but in among that, was an emerging readiness to shake off the shackles of wartime and desire to live life fully. Penelope’s character is a delightful (and surprising) example of this; a rich young woman with a handsome fiance, she could have been snooty and an obnoxious Bright Young Thing, but instead she was sweet, refreshing and guileless.
Through Eden, Penelope and a number of other female characters, McIntosh also highlighted a changing world for women, one many men were resistant to. Fashions and hairstyles were just the start: as Eden reflects, “Short hair was the immediate future and meant so much more than simply a new style. It spoke of a new freedom for women …” There was a lot to love about the female characters in this novel – I can’t think of one I did not like. McIntosh also showed men’s varied reactions to these changes – ranging from puzzlement and resistance (Ben and Abe) and acceptance (Tom). This aspect was well-balanced and authentic. Change is never easy and some changes are harder to adjust to than others; it’s to be expected that there will be opposition. Does that make characters like Ben unlikeable? He wanted Eden to be the mother of his children and only pretended to support her career in order to win her over; he had every intention of encouraging her to give up her salon. No, it makes him realistic, just as his reaction to Tom’s arrival was.
I fell in love with Tom and Eden’s love story – can you do that? Poor Blue Eyes had to listen to a running commentary and when I neared the end, he said, “Let me know what happens”. I whispered the ending in his ear … but I am not going to whisper it here. It’s romantic, passionate, heart-melting and heart-breaking, with moments that made me suck in my breath and others that had me brushing away a little tear (or two). If it was a film, I’d recommend tissues … actually, get tissues anyway.
Emotive and richly-drawn, highlighting meticulous research and masterful storytelling skills, The Tailor’s Girl is a stunning story from one of my favourite writers. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next … and I can’t wait to read The Tailor’s Girl again.
Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. This copy was courtesy of Penguin.
Bookish treat: As I read this, I nibbled on home-made amaretti biscuits (Italian almond cookies) and sipped a coffee. Mmmm.