Review: THE BLACK DRESS by Deborah Moggach, published by Tinder Press

Hardback ISBN: 9781472260529

This is a rather strange one for me. Occasionally I am lucky enough to have a new book sent to me to review, and I’m always grateful. After all, with my income any opportunity to read another writer’s work is to be appreciated. And because I’m an author it’s not always easy to justify reading for please (especially when, like now, I am rather far behind on deadlines), and being sent books and asked to review them is usually a great pleasure. Not always – although I am an historical novelist, I don’t necessarily enjoy bodice-rippers, and when certain publishers send me romantic stories involving heaving breasts at the sight of the latest Heathcliffe look-alike, I do tend to get a little grumpy. 

See what I mean?

As an example, today I received an invitation to review a book by an actress who has written a “Raw and compelling new memoir”. It includes transfers of butterflies which look as though they are simulations of tattoos, a postcard of a butterfly, and a set of nail art stickers. 

Why me?

Still, this book is not one of that kind. 

Deborah Moggach is a highly acclaimed author. Her books, such as THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL have been enjoyed by millions – and seen by still more millions in the excellent film starring Judi Dench, Billy Nighy, Maggie Smith and others. I loved that film, although to my shame I confess I haven’t read the book. Nor, indeed, any other books by Deborah Moggach, so I picked this up with a great deal of anticipation.

This story is not a romantic love story. It has a fabulous cast of characters. Pru, the narrator, has been left by her husband, and not only that, he has taken up with her best friend, Azra. The two have departed the area (Muswell Hill) and Pru is devastated. A long marriage, two adult children, both living abroad, and Pru is left to try to pick up the shattered remains of her life. Not that it’s easy, living in a house that holds all the memories of their lives. 

One day she impulse-buys a black dress. And it’s going to change her life. At least, that is what she hopes.

And then the story gets a little … strange. Pru is lonely, she is desperate, and she really wants to meet people, and when a friend dies she goes to the funeral in her new black dress – except she attends the wrong funeral. This is the beginning of her story. Meeting the widower, she becomes interested in him and accepts an invitation to the wake. OK, harmless, and potentially humiliatingly embarrassing when asked, “So, how did you meet my wife?”, but at least she’s getting out and meeting new people. And she rather likes this new fellow. It could be possible that she and he might get together, she thinks. But lie after lie is exhausting. It’s almost a relief when the attempted affair fizzles out. But she had discovered a way of finding men who were unattached, who were loyal to their wives, and who were available. It set her off looking in the papers for local funerals, stalking the dead through their social media pages, and visiting the widowers to try to pick them up. 

Okay, this is a novel. We have to suspend disbelief, and yet …

The characterisation of Pru didn’t quite work for me. The idea of a woman who’s just been devastated by her husband of many years ditching her to run away with her best friend, then going to a funeral and lying to a widower – that showed a level of sociopathic behaviour that felt wrong. In fact it’s where the whole story first began to slip for me. It read very disjointedly. I remember reading PG Wodehouse used to keep the narrative flow going by writing scenes with links saying “Get them to the conservatory” or “Moves on to the swimming pool”. They were elements which were needed to pull the story together, and he would return them later to tighten the connections. While writing the first draft, he wouldn’t bother with them. They were the finessing, they were the little tweaks that would bring a series of scenes with interlocking plot lines together. The trouble with THE BLACK DRESS is that it feels rather like one of Wodehouse’s novels, but without that interconnectedness. 

For me, that was curious in the extreme. Deborah Moggach is a thoroughly successful novelist. Her stories have earned her praise across the world, and I loved the result of her work with the EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL, but this didn’t work for me. 

Was the writing good? Yes, it was a very high standard. Was the story interesting? Yes, without doubt. But the characters did not engage me. I never really identified with any of them. And then, well I won’t go into detail because that would be a bit of a giveaway, but there is a sudden reveal which was really … well, clunky, really.

I should say, I did wonder whether it might just be that I am a male and that this kind of story was aimed much more at women. It’s possible, so I asked my wife to read it, and before I had read it all myself (I had two other books to finish at the time), she went through it herself, and had exactly the same comments: that she never felt involved with the characters, that the story did not flow, and especially that the last-minute reveal was very blunt. I should also say that the author’s views came through quite firmly, too, which was off-putting for a less-left-leaning reader like me. I don’t read to be preached at – yes, I want to see other points of view, but there is a current fad for writers to assume a left of centre perspective and deride those who don’t agree. I’d prefer to see a more well-rounded series of perspectives. And the last few chapters (no, I won’t give away the story) talk about a relationship which is now so hackneyed as a concept it’s almost a cliché.

Ach, so what can I say about this book?

Yes, it is interesting. Yes, it’s a good initial concept. Yes, it held my attention. I didn’t feel the need to cast it aside. Can I give it “Highly Recommended”? In all honesty, no. It’s the sort of book you may enjoy. It does have a perspective on middle class life that is quite entertaining. But is it a serious character study? No. And it doesn’t work for me in terms of plot. In short, when I put the book down, I was mostly irritated at how unconnected the various elements felt.

So, quite an interesting book, but not one that would tempt me to read any of her other works. Which is a huge shame – but I will get a copy of BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL. 

Comments
3 Responses to “Review: THE BLACK DRESS by Deborah Moggach, published by Tinder Press”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Review…

    Like

  2. For me, The black Dress itself was a character. It’s life played through Pru. The dress went on a journey in the personification of Pru and so tells tales. I thoroughly enjoyed the characterisation with the twists and turns all mashed together.
    Themes of late life love, mid life crises, perils of aging and loneliness are all interwoven in the story. The dress is telling its story using this old lady in her 70s and her love adventures.
    The ending could be better. The black dress shouldn’t be chucked at the sea side. It is the main character. It needs to go back where it came from- the Charity shop. Someone else will buy it and embark on their own journey. The black dress lives on but everybody else goes off or dies. I thought this was a well crafted story.
    I also had the wonderful opportunity to meet the writer herself Deborah Moggach on the Goldster platform. What a brilliant lady and writer. Will be reading more of your books.
    Thanks

    Like

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