Review by Rachel Hamm
It’s the early 1960s and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is the style icon of the decade. Even after some bad publicity during her husband’s run for office (the amount of money she spent on foreign-made clothes didn’t exactly go over well), she’s still the woman the country looks to when determining fashion trends. And Kate is the lucky seamstress at the fashionable copy-cat shop Chez Ninon who gets to make “The Wife’s” smart suits and gorgeous dresses.
For Kate, a single woman, an Irish immigrant, living in a quiet Catholic neighborhood in northern Manhattan, the Wife is her passion. She keeps clippings of the outfits she’s made for her. She copies the outfits for her sister, who is the same size as the Wife. She gets the opportunity of a lifetime when the Husband places a direct order through Chez Ninon for a Chanel suit. The infamous pink suit the Wife would be wearing when the Husband was assassinated.
As Kate prepares the suit, she deals with personal troubles of her own. Falling in love and deciding if that is enough to get married to fellow Irish Catholic Patrick Harris. Contemplating an offer to go into business with her mentor and leave the shop she’s dedicated years to. Discovering her sister doesn’t actually like having replicas of the Wife’s clothes. Through it all, the suit grounds her while also allowing her to live out a fantasy – one where the Wife is not an untouchable public figure, but the girl from County Cork who isn’t all that different from Kate herself.
After reading this, I felt like chastising myself for not reading more historical fiction. The entire book was wonderfully done. The period details were subtle and accurate and made me want to grab Doc Brown’s Delorian and head back in time. Everything was simpler, the world slower, but fashion was having a revolution.
Kate loves her work. She loves the fabrics and the tiny stitches, and the way garments can be designed to hide the flaws our bodies come by naturally. I found myself really routing for Kate. She was relatable in having this passion that made her a bit of an outcast in her neighborhood, and at times within her own family.
Her friend-turned-boyfriend, Patrick, is as adorable as possible. A sweet Irish butcher who loved his mam and misses her now that she’s gone, does everything in his power to show Kate that despite what everyone else may think, he loves her and celebrates her passion for the Wife and the Suit (and whatever else she wants to be passionate about) – all he asks is she take an interest in his passion as well. It’s a great message about love, which I found surprising given the time period of the novel.
I don’t dog-ear books. It’s just not something I do. But there was one particular passage of this book that HAD to be remembered. Kate is thinking about her nephew and how he’ll be associated with her unique ways.
Poor Little Mike, Kate thought, but knew there were worse things in life than having an aunt who didn’t always obey the rules – like having an aunt who mindlessly obeyed them. What a frightful way to be.
Maybe this struck me because I’m an aunt who doesn’t always follow the rules of how my family thinks I should act. Or maybe because it just seemed to sum up the entire book so well. Kate actually DOES do some mindless rule-following at her job – coming in early and staying late to complete orders that absolutely must be done – but throughout the story, we see her coming into her own. Once she realizes that there are people who see her as something undesirable, she kinda lets loose. She allows herself to be reckless. She becomes that person who doesn’t mindlessly follow rules.
My one complaint about the book is that, because of the genre, it is light on dialogue. This makes it move along a little more slowly than I prefer. I didn’t get “sucked in.” But I really enjoyed the story and the cast of characters and most definitely appreciated the way the story was told. The actual pink suit is now an icon. The (fictional) Pink Suit could very well become a classic.
About the Author:
Brought up in Florida, Kelby has worked as a reporter, editor and educator. Initially a playwright, she later turned to novels and short stories. She is the author of Murder at the Bad Girl’s Bar and Grill, Whale Season, In the Company of Angels, and Theater of the Stars.
Her short stories have appeared in many publications including Zoetrope All-Story Extra, One Story, Minnesota Monthly, Verb, and The Mississippi Review. One was recorded by actress Joanne Woodward for the NPR CD Travel Tales, and included in New Stories from the South: Best of 2006.
Kelby has been the recipient of a Bush Artist Fellowship in Literature, the Heekin Group Foundation’s James Fellowship for the Novel, both a Florida and Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship in fiction, two Jerome Travel Study Grants, and a Jewish Arts Endowment Fellowship. She was named "Outstanding Southern Artist" by The Southern Arts Federation and her work has been translated into several languages. She has been a Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award finalist for fiction three times and placed twice in the Nelson Algren Award for the Short Story.
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