#TheWeddingDressSewingCircle by #JenniferRyan #NetGalley #ARCReview #BookReview #WorldWarII #HistoricalFiction

Three plucky women lift the spirits of home-front brides in wartime Britain, where clothes rationing leaves little opportunity for pomp or celebration–even at weddings–in this heartwarming novel based on true events, from the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.

After renowned fashion designer Cressida Westcott loses both her home and her design house in the London Blitz, she has nowhere to go but the family manor house she fled decades ago. Praying that her niece and nephew will be more hospitable than her brother had been, she arrives with nothing but the clothes she stands in, at a loss as to how to rebuild her business while staying in a quaint country village.

Her niece, Violet Westcott, is thrilled that her famous aunt is coming to stay–the village has been interminably dull with all the men off fighting. But just as Cressida arrives, so does Violet’s conscription letter. It couldn’t have come at a worse time; how will she ever find a suitably aristocratic husband if she has to spend her days wearing a frumpy uniform and doing war work?

Meanwhile, the local vicar’s daughter, Grace Carlisle, is trying in vain to repair her mother’s gown, her only chance of a white wedding. When Cressida Westcott appears at the local Sewing Circle meeting, Grace asks for her help–but Cressida has much more to teach the ladies than just simple sewing skills.

Before long, Cressida’s spirit and ambition galvanizes the village group into action, and they find themselves mending wedding dresses not only for local brides, but for brides across the country. And as the women dedicate themselves to helping others celebrate love, they might even manage to find it for themselves.”

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle (Amazon) was such a good book, I didn’t want to put it down! World War II historical fiction has been hot for quite a few years, and quite frankly, I was getting a little burned out on the theme despite the variety of stories and settings. But that changed when I met Violet, Cressida, and Grace. The setting of a small village in the country with an estate and a group of women joining together for the war effort was written in such a charming way, it almost made you forget that the war was real.

But that same reality hits when Cressida’s home and business are bombed by the Germans, leaving her homeless. She reaches out to her nephew and niece who are living at the family manor and asks for refuge. This isn’t easy, as Cressida had never gotten along with her father or brother, who wanted her to marry well and be a typical lordly wife. You see, Cressida fled for France the first chance she could when she was of marriageable age and learned design. Eventually she relocated to London and had a thriving business, but she never kept in touch with her brother or his children. But they begrudgingly agree to let her stay with them until she can secure new lodgings and a new business front.

Grace is the vicar’s daughter, raised by him alone since the death of her mother some years before. Grace is a dutiful daughter, who helps her father with many things. She also takes care of her father in a way; since returning from World War I and seeing his best friend killed, he’s been a changed man, someone who at times can not cope with the world. Grace is set to marry another vicar, an ambition one who’s being talked about as becoming a deacon, and she’s set up to be the perfect vicar’s wife. As she meets Cressida at the weekly village sewing circle, an instant friendship is born in the task of repairing Grace’s mother’s wedding dress in time for the big day.

Violet is a pampered rich young lady who is appalled that she becomes conscripted into the local service to help with the war effort. But seeing as her arranged marriage has fallen through due to the man’s death in the war, she’s got nothing but time on her hands. Service life is a rude awakening, but she decides to make the best of it and becomes a skilled driver and mechanic, hoping to reach officer status eventually.

The goal to repair Grace’s wedding gown becomes a village-wide effort to help brides wear a nice white wedding dress on their big day because rationing means most women can’t afford to spend their ration coupons on a wedding dress. Soon dresses are donated, word is spread to other towns and villages, and Vogue magazine becomes interested enough to do a story on the wedding dress sewing circle.

I cannot imagine the rationing that our parents and grandparents and great grandparents had to do. Forty coupons a year for clothes (according to the book, but some other sources I’ve read had differing amounts), and something like a dress were 11 coupons, shoes 5, stockings 2. You could maybe get three outfits a year out of a ration book, but you could also buy second hand clothes. And there was a big push for fashion designers to streamline fashions using as little material as possible. Cressida, with Grace’s help, enters a contest featuring more utilitarian styles.

And yes, there’s romance for all three women in this book, and done in such a thoughtful way, showing how these women were making these choices because of how the war had changed them. Violet is no longer a spoiled brat looking to marry a duke or an earl, Grace realizes she doesn’t want to be a vicar’s wife, and Cressida realizes that while she’s been a great success professionally with her life, she was missing something, and finds that with Grace’s dad, the vicar, who also happened to be the best friend of the man she was engaged to when he was killed during World War I.

There were no huge surprises in this book, although the war was brought home during a bombing raid where Grace is trying to get a young boy to the shelter (she’s a warden) and a bomb hits and collapses the house so they’re buried in the rubble a short while. And that just made me remember the devastation England suffered during World War II. It was a very sobering moment.

If you’re looking for a good historical fiction novel, love an English countryside setting, like strong female characters, and one that’s got a little romance, The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle is for you.

I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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