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Provincial tailor Claude Reynaud doesn't just carry out routine repairs on the clothes of the people of Senlis. Claude has a famous talent: wealthy Parisiennes drive out to the sleepy town to buy his custom-made designs. For years Claude has resisted lucrative offers to join France's most influential fashion houses; it was the reason his wife, Rose-Marie, left him, disappointed by his lack of ambition and his reluctance to live the high profile lifestyle she craved. But Claude is happy in Senlis, living near his married sister and her four young sons. Everyday the boys call in at the studio after school and their doting uncle entertains them with puppet shows. Life goes on quietly until one day Valentine de Verlay comes to the studio to be measured for a wedding dress; Claude falls for her in an instant and it seems that Valentine likewise feels something for Claude.
Claude is compelled to contact a solicitor and start divorce proceedings against his wife, after all he's heard nothing from her for almost eight years though he knows where she's living. Despite his attempts to persuade Valentine, she refuses to call off the wedding but Claude senses that all is not right with the relationship between Valentine and her fiancé Victor. Then an unexpected arrival in Senlis terrifies Claude and he makes a life-changing decision: desperate to be near Valentine, Claude decides to abandon his principles and agrees to take up a job with a prestigious Paris fashion house which he'll start the day after the wedding. Can Claude ever claim the beautiful Valentine for himself?
The first thing that struck me about this charming story is how unreal it all seemed. The location and the situations were real enough to me and the characters similarly were easily believable but there was such a strange feeling of otherworldliness that loaned an air of a fairytale, not unlike the effect Joanne Harris has created in novels such as "Chocolat" or "Blackberry Wine". This novel can be as deep as you want it to be. On its most basic level it's a gentle romance but if you delve deeper there's are much darker themes, such as progress and globalisation, summed up in the difference between Claude's old job as a provincial tailor and his new life as an internationally acclaimed haute couturier.
The basic story is pretty predictable but a small cast of expertly drawn characters renders this fact unimportant. Claude is depicted as a man who up until now - aged 46 - has been sleepwalking through life; he's been married before but this is the first time he's really fallen in love. There were one or two times when I found Claude's behaviour a little unbelievable; I couldn't really envisage this mild-mannered man defying his boss, yet not standing up to his own selfish sister. Still, Claude is a really engaging character who throws in the occasional surprise to a plot that certainly needs it.
Valentine was another character that didn't work in every way. She's a high flier in the world of art but do we really believe that this ambitious and determined young woman needed a man (namely Victor) to get her started in her career? She's a loyal person - she'd have to be to stick with the domineering, insensitive and self-absorbed Victor - and I can see that Oberbeck has tried to give her moments of spontaneity to contrast this with the path she has reluctantly resigned herself to but it just doesn't work, it's too engineered and unnatural.
There's a distinct difference between the "baddies" of the piece, Victor and Rose-Marie; Victor is genuinely unpleasant, a hard-drinking bully whose wife stays with him only through pity, whereas as Rose-Marie is just shallow and selfish, there's no strong indication that she feels any malevolence towards Claude. It's the supporting cast that hold up the story and (almost) stop it from spilling over into complete sentimentality, even whimsicality. Claude's boisterous nephews add a much needed injection of animation while Claude's best friends - opposites if ever there were any - a priest and a playboy friend form his fashion college days anchor him in the real world. Though she only plays a minor role, I liked Suzanne, Claude's harassed sister who holds down a high pressure job in Paris while her children torment each other and empty the fridge.
The story is told in a simple way but is enlivened by some lovely descriptions, best of all those of the colourful outfits Claude makes for the ladies who visit him, and the ones in his head that he imagines making for Valentine. This palette of colours and textures brings the story to life and adds to the fairytale effect. The backdrops are important to the novel; sleepy Senlis and hectic Paris were nicely portrayed but I felt that the scenes in New York were a little lacklustre and didn't convey much of a feeling of that city. The strong visual elements would certainly provide good grounds for adapting this novel into a screenplay.
I have already mentioned that this novel is rather predictable but it was one or two unpredictable events that spoiled my enjoyment of "The Dressmaker". There's an unnecessary sub plot involving Claude's older nephew Henri and his girlfriend that adds nothing to the main story and another seemingly pointless scene when Claude's other sister turns up because of a family emergency; both are short episodes so they don't add many pages but the main plot doesn't need them. I don't think the novel finished as well as it started; while I was initially hooked by the provincial French charm, I felt that the settings became less evocative and action became quite repetitive.
The Dressmaker is not a bad novel; Valentine and Claude are excellent character studies and Oberbeck writes well about relationships. The flaws are minor and don't overshadow the charming story but I feel that had the editing been better this would have been a more successful novel. It's easy reading and should have "don't forget to pack" stamped on the cover. Recommended for those who enjoy simples stories, especially fans of Joanne Harris.