[A young couple who have just moved into a long-empty house find a hidden suitcase]
Scuffed brown leather covered in old-fashioned labels from far away places. Paris. New York. Los Angeles. Zoe had seen similar luggage selling for stupid amounts of money in the chicest vintage shops of West London.
‘Should we open it?’ Win asked, but he had already snapped open the clasps and lifted up the lid before Zoe could tell tell him that they should drop it off at the vendor’s solicitor. Still, she leaned closer, intrigued, as Win took out a parcel wrapped in tissue paper, which disintegrated beneath his fingers. He shook out the folded fabric that was nestled inside.
It was a bottle-green dress cut on the bias. Zoe reached out a hand to gently touch the material. It was made of rayon or crepe, one of those old fabrics slightly rough to the touch…
commentary: I was lucky enough to go to a glamorous and sophisticated party to launch this book last night: I am of course open to being bribed with unusual cocktails, fizz, and fabulous canapes – but luckily there was no need. I had already read the book and absolutely loved it, so could consume everything on offer with a clear conscience. (I pretty much knew in advance that I would love it – see my enthusiastic post about Sarra Manning’s last book, After the Last Dance, here on the blog.)
This one has a great setup – two distinct storylines, one contemporary and one in the 1930s, linked by a London house in a way that isn’t revealed to begin with. Zoe and Win, above, have moved into a long-empty house, trying to rebuild their relationship after something went badly wrong. They are doing it up, even if Zoe sometimes feels that they’ll be
working long past retirement age, coach parties swinging past to take pictures of the house that hadn’t been lived in for 80 years, then had the builders in for another 40.Meanwhile, more or less alternate chapters tell us the story of Libby, the owner of the green dress, knocking round 1930s London (not in the house of the title…) after an unfortunate series of events of her own. We first meet her, quite splendidly, acting as the fake adultery partner in a divorce case – a fascinating feature of 1930s life that also comes up, memorably, in Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust, and is mentioned in Dorothy L Sayers Busman’s Honeymoon – see this blogpost for more details. (The arcane 30s divorce rules are laid out and explained in the book – I had never really understood them before.)
We follow the two stories in parallel – Zoe and Win are working out their own problems, while also trying to find out more about Libby, reading her diary which is in the suitcase, and watching the story unfold at the same time as we do. By the end there is a real cliffhanger about Libby’s story – I read a lot of crime novels, but few of them kept me as tense as waiting and hoping and dreading how things are going to pan out for Libby.
And, as in the earlier book, Sarra writes so well about women, and men, and their lives. These are real people, the kind you can imagine as your friends, they have faults and annoying traits, but they also have their charms and quirks. I thought the relationships in the book were very well done. When writing about After the Last Dance, I said about the heroine Rose
She is a great character – not a goody-goody, nor promiscuous, but somewhere in between. She is very sharp and smart and human. She also has an excellent interest in her clothes …And that could apply to Libby too.
There were various fine clothes moments in the book, but in the end I felt I had to go with Libby’s cherished green dress, which she wore to be married in. The drawing is from a collection of NYPL fashion illustrations of the 1930s. The photograph, from Kristine’s photostream, is a little too late, but seemed to be the right kind of green dress, and the mysterious head in shadow is in the spirit of the plot.
I took some photos at the booklaunch, but as is traditional with me they were all unusably terrible, so the photo of Sarra above is from her Twitter feed. She is a great friend to this blog – we met online, and are constantly swapping book recommendations. Thus, she has cost me a lot of money over the years – because anything she recommends I immediately buy – but I do forgive her….