What is the extent of human survival? What is the extent of human cruelty? These are some of the questions raised within the pages of “The Dressmaker’s Secret” by Lorna Cook, and it struggles to address them.
The book opens with our protagonist, Chloé, trying to buy any trinket she can from the auction sale of antiques belonging to The Ritz Paris, as a token of remembrance for her grandmother who had spent five years of her life at that hotel, just when the most dreadful war of 20th century was beginning to brew in France (WWII). She meets Etienne there and gets to know about a surprising and shocking truth about her grandmother’s employer, designer ‘Coco’ Chanel — that she had been a Nazi spy, helping them in exchange for favors.
This piece of news turns everything Chloé thought she knew about her grandmother, Adèle, who was Chanel’s assistant, upside down. The author then takes us to Paris in 1942 when the Germans had just conquered Paris, focusing on Adèle’s life with her employer. While Chloé tries to find out all she could about Chanel and her grandmother, we are thrown into the harsh period of WWII and taken for a crazy ride with Adèle in her bid for survival.
The book travels between the 1940s and 2018 alternately, as we follow Adèle and Chloé, and the author has done a clever job of straddling between both these times. Her ability to seamlessly bring the reader into the fearful, uncertain Nazi-occupied France is commendable; the fear and nervousness that Adèle and the people of the country must have felt was palpable and was very well-realized on the page. She makes the reader see the actions of those people, however despicable or horrendous it may be, for what they really were — people trying to survive the worst and doing the best they could to survive. She lays out in stark detail, the harsh realities of war and how it brings out the best or worst in people.
There are also some twists and turns in the story that were quite surprising and made the reading of the book enjoyable and thrilling. It is a well-written story which subtly asks some deep questions. But I am usually not a fan of such dark content — it’s just not my cup of tea — so I don’t believe I will be reading any of her future works.
If you are a fan of reading books which pull you into a slice of history and tell a thrilling story along with it, this is definitely the book for you. Let me know through the comments what you think about it, after you get to read it.