Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 25, 2020

The Dressmaker’s Secret, by Rosalie Ham

Rosalie’s Ham’s debut novel The Dressmaker was a bestseller and made into a film starring Kate Winslet so the sequel really needs no introduction.  But since the frocks are so gorgeous, here’s a quick reminder anyway.

Like its predecessor, the sequel, The Dressmaker’s Secret is a romcom-revenge-drama, but Tilly Dunnage is not a femme-fatale this time.  When the story begins she is hiding out in Melbourne after the fire that destroyed Dungatar, and keeping a low profile in the second-rate dress Salon Mystique in Collins Street.  The satire is barbed: Ham sets the scene during a Coronation frenzy, when every woman wants The Perfect Gown in which to attend the social events taking place to celebrate the ascension of Elizabeth to the faraway throne of England. Tilly, of course, is a fish out of water in a salon that shamelessly copies designs from Mrs Flock’s buying expeditions to Europe, and she chafes at the pretensions and dishonesty of the place.

She has a reason for sticking it out, and that’s Joe, her son by Teddy Watt who died in an accident in Book I, just as their romance was in bloom. Since there was no child-care in those unenlightened days, and Joe’s grandmother (like everyone else) blamed Tilly for the death, she has to place him in an orphanage until she has enough money to bring him home to a place of her own.  This being the fifties, that implies respectability — necessitating a husband — but Tilly is still grieving for Teddy so the solution is a marriage of convenience…

When the cross-dressing Sergeant Farrat tracks Tilly down, he (of course) wants her to make gorgeous outfits for him, but that leads the harridans from Dunagatar to her trail as well.  They not only want stunning frocks, they also want vengeance, and the custody of little Joe is the way to get it.   This scenario facilitates a hot-bed of malice, envy and blame, plus some very dark acts of vengeance and spite.

The novel seems to have an eye to possible film adaptation, with lots of very detailed descriptions of clothes, witty dialogue and short filmic scenes, which made it somewhat difficult to keep track of the numerous characters, especially if it’s been a while since reading the first book.  It’s longer than The Dressmaker too, and might have benefitted from a bit of pruning, especially the too-frequent inarticulate dialogue from the two-year-old.

Though Tilly has an epiphany about the values of the fashion industry, this is a not a novel of ideas, and its theme of accepting diversity seems to apply to some characters more than others.  But as a bit of escapism with glamour thrown in for good measure, The Dressmaker’s Secret will please a lot of readers.

Author: Rosalie Ham
Title: the Dressmaker’s Secret
Publisher: Picador, (Pan Macmillan), 2020
ISBN: 9781760982027, pbk., 378 pages
Review copy courtesy of Picador,

Available from Fishpond The Dressmaker’s Secret or your favourite indie bookshop. RRP $32.99.

 


Responses

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this book. As per her first Rosalie has a gift for colourful characters but also presents social mores of the times. I would love to,see it as a movie. Pam Turner

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    • It certainly made me glad not to have been an adult in that era, trussed unto corsets and judged by how I looked instead of what I did.

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  2. This sounds like a rerun of the first novel, in a lazy/commercial way. Quite enjoyed the film, though- KW seemed to be having fun vamping it up

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    • Well, I guess you could call it commercial fiction, but I wouldn’t be as harsh as you are!

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  3. I’ll wait for the film as the clothes will no doubt be a feast for the senses.

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    • It was a great era for glamorous frocks, but having to wear them would have been a different matter.

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      • I can’t imagine living in dresses. 🐧🐧

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        • The last time I wore a dress was 20+ years ago when I went for a job interview. LBD and a green blazer if I remember rightly. Colleagues were amazed to the point of actually commenting about it, they’d never seen my legs!

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  4. I have a copy of this one and am looking forward to it. I did really love The Dressmaker!

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  5. Loved this film. I didn’t know it was a book!

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    • It’s great when a book you love gets turned into a film you like even better:)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds a bit like I expected. If I had plenty of time, I’d read it, but as I don’t, it’s not high priority. I’m not one desperate to read sequels to novels, I think because plot is not the most important thing to me. The writing and ideas are, especially if the ideas include questions. I like open-ended books because I like to be left with questions. I’m therefore not seeking closure in a follow-up book (or more questions). However, I loved the film of the first book, and loved the character of Tilly, so I’d certainly see a film version.

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    • I hear you.
      This is a case of, it is what it is, an escapist romp. There’s too many characters for much in the way of character development, But as an antidote to all the gloom, doom and misery that’s coming out of publishing right now, it’s probably just what many readers need.
      I trawled through the latest summer reading guide and was depressed just reading the summaries: suicide, sexual abuse, racism, domestic abuse, mental illness, generational trauma, grief, loss, colonial violence, shame, it goes on and on, and I’m over it. All those things are important but Australian fiction is drowning in it, and I’ve got empathy fatigue (in reading, not in real life, I hope). And now there’s a callout for stories of the pandemic as if anyone wants to relive it in fiction on top of living it in real life!!

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      • I understand Lisa. However, I’d read pandemic stories because I’d like to understand different perspectives and experiences to mine and the people I know. I’m different I think I my reading interests.

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        • LOL Sue, if you were in Melbourne you could see and read more than you’d ever want to about pandemic experiences, and most of it relentlessly negative too.

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          • Perhaps… But my tolerance for misery is pretty high! You can read into that what you will!! I am keeping up with the USA closely because of a dear friend. That’s pretty horrible too.

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  7. i wasn’t wowed by the film of the first book so think I will give the second one a miss. I have plenty of other escapist fiction already on my shelves…

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    • You might be needing it, I fear, from here, things look pretty grim in Britain…

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  8. […] Wish I had The Dressmaker’s Secret, by Rosalie Ham […]

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