The Silver DressJuly 15, 2011
The Silver Dress felt like it was a very different book when it ended than when it started, but both were books I like, so I don’t really feel like complaining.
I’m tempted to compare the first part of the book to Cinderella, or the Ugly Duckling, but Eve Martindale isn’t really either. She’s wealthy, attractive, and well-bred, and she lives with a much-loved elderly aunt. She’s thirty-five and unmarried, and she doesn’t know any men socially, but she hasn’t got a problem with that.
Then her cousin Margaret Welwyn comes to London to make her debut in society, and Margaret’s mother and Aunt Caroline, with whom Eve lives, start trying to get her to go to some of the parties being thrown for Margaret. At one of these parties she meets Julian Armitage, who works in the Foreign Office — why is it always the Foreign Office? I like to imagine that all the fictional young men authors have assigned to the Foreign Office are there simultaneously — who is charmed by her unaffected manners and her cool demeanor, which is more a matter of appearance than reality. Julian is about thirty, good-looking, always correctly attired, and personable, if a little too serious. He falls pretty hard for Eve, but their relationship develops slowly. He’s a little awkward and inclined to take offense, while she takes things as they come and is inclined to forgive and forget. When he eventually proposes, it leads not to a happy ending, but to the beginning of a long and convoluted series of misunderstandings.
I’m generally the first to protest a series of misunderstandings that apparently exist for no purpose but to keep two characters apart for a couple of hundred pages. Situations like that are contrived, and feel contrived. But Mrs. George Norman makes it work. I’m not saying it’s not frustrating at times — it’s frustrating most of the time. And some bits — like Eve’s cousin Clemmy Dale — are clearly there just to prolong the conflict. But Clemmy isn’t the situation; she’s the device that sets the situation in motion. The cleverest thing about The Silver Dress is the way Norman gets you to see that Eve and Julian are both acting in ways that make sense — that, being who they are, they can’t act in any other way. These are consistent characters. What we know about them dictates what they do. And the prolonged misunderstandings, as well as lengthening the book, allow us to know Eve and Julian very well by the end of it.
I love it when books are internally consistent.
Other things I like include: the symmetry of Aunt Caroline and Julian’s uncle Charles Wynne-Hughes. The occasional feeling that I was reading a Cosmo Hamilton novel (mostly when Clemmy Dale was present). Eve’s completely ridiculous first kiss.
And yet, except for an incident where Eve almost murders someone, everything after the first few sections is somewhat plodding. It’s a contemplative book, which is fine — unless the author leads her readers to believe a little bit more is going to happen, and I think Norman does.
Also, Graham Clavers was almost completely unnecessary.