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As we watch TMZ reporting on the antics of Prince Harry cavorting in Las Vegas, and we avidly follow the revolving door romances of our favorite royals, it is easy to forget that this bad boy behavior is not limited to our current crop of dukes and princes. In the 1920’s and 30’s the world was enraptured by the current Prince Charming and heir to the British crown, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, later Edward VIII who abdicated the crown for “the woman I love” the twice divorced Wallis Simpson. The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow is a “what if” novel, taking the habits of that playboy prince and the unfortunate practice of committing troublesome women to mental institutions and wrapping them into a tale of love, uncertainty and mystery.
Trenow gives us “Queenie”, a delusional mental patient recounting her life story to a student in the 1970’s who is doing a research project on inmates of Helena Hall, and Caroline, a thirty–something recently discharged bank officer navigating her choices in 2008 while coping with a mother descending into senility. As each life unfolds, the women reveal more and more about their individual worlds. “Queenie” introduces us to London in the Edwardian Age for an orphan, with all the difficulties of needing to find a skill that will keep a young girl off the streets. In the care of nuns, the child is trained to become a seamstress, a trade for which she possesses considerable talent. We are unsure whether or not “Queenie” is a reliable narrator, since she tells her tale from the position of a patient who has been incarcerated for forty years, with records showing her delusions are of long standing and she has received electroshock and pharmaceutical treatment during that time. She believes she was an employee of the palace, and that she had an affair of the heart with the Prince of Wales.
Caroline, in our present day, struggles with the decision to go back to interior design, the career she abandoned in favor of the lure of the financial security of working in a bank. She is recently split from her longtime lover, and feels her biological clock ticking. Adding to her stress is her mother’s increasing confusion, with its references to her long dead father. As Caroline is forced to consider selling her mother’s home to afford a care facility, she finds her grandmother’s quilt amongst her mother’s storage and begins an attempt to learn more about the exquisite piece of needlework. Eventually the past and present collide, as the lives of the two characters intersect.
Trenow has a deft hand with description, and she gives Edwardian London a feeling of immediacy and reality. Her characters have intriguing voices, and electrifying personalities. There are some very predictable turns of plot, but they are still handled with skill, and are not a detriment to her story. Her historical detail, especially on the textiles involved, is well researched, and give a satisfying weight to the believability of the characters.
There is a certain distance the reader feels, almost at arm’s length, from the main characters, due in part to the clinical approach to “Queenie”’s interview. I would have expected to feel more horror at the possibility that this woman had been kept in an institution as a convenience, instead of because it was necessary, but that emotion does not fully arise from Trenow’s pages. Still, “Queenie” is an intriguing and lively character, and the reader is drawn eagerly to find out what happens throughout her life. Caroline is less compelling, but still well developed, and the twining of the two is smartly done.
The Forgotten Seamstress is a cut above a beach read, and would be a satisfying summer vacation read. It has the sweet tartness of a tall glass of lemon squash, and can be the perfect refreshment for an afternoon in the hammock.
In accordance with FTC guidelines for bloggers and endorsements, I would like to clarify that the books reviewed by me are either purchased/borrowed by me, or provided by the publisher/author free of charge. I am neither compensated for my reviews nor are my opinions influenced in any way by the avenues in which I obtain my materials.
- Paperback:336 pages
- Publisher:Sourcebooks Landmark (May 6, 2014)
- Also available for Kindle
Reviewed By Paula Tupper