Sunday 22 July 2018

Books: Sprinkling of designer-tag fairy dust in style-conscious read

Fiction: The Dress, Kate Kerrigan, Head of Zeus Ltd, pbk, 384 pages, €16.99

Time travel: Kate Kerrigan deftly mixes a present day tale with 1950s New York.
Time travel: Kate Kerrigan deftly mixes a present day tale with 1950s New York.

Anne Cunningham

Kate Kerrigan's latest novel opens in London with Lily Fitzpatrick, vintage clothes junkie, successful stylist and fashion blogger, mooching about in her friend Gareth's antique shop, haggling over an old Roberts radio. Her grandfather, a regular visitor to the shop, collapses on the pavement outside and from this shocker of a start, the drama begins to unfurl.

Her grandfather persistently refused to discuss his Mayo childhood, so after his death, Lily decides to do some research, a' la Who Do You Think You Are. All she knows is there was an older brother, Frank Fitzpatrick, who went to America and never came home.

Flashback to New York, New Year's Eve 1950. Frank Fitzpatrick, a self-made millionaire, is at a New Year party. But this isn't a party in the Bronx or Queens full of Irish émigrés working hard as firemen or cops. This is a society bash, attended by the bluest of New England's blue bloods, where Frank has found himself a niche. He meets Joy, the stunning beauty he marries shortly afterwards, and the fairytale begins…

Except this fairytale is more Brothers Grimm than Hans Christian Anderson, as Lily soon discovers.

She finds an old photograph of Joy Fitzpatrick in a stunning dress, the like of which has never been seen before or since. And since vintage dresses happen to be her - um - "bag", she's determined to find out more, not just about the dress but about the enigmatic Fitzpatricks, a couple who seem to have faded from New York's social scene as abruptly as they arrived.

What ensues is not just a cross-Atlantic investigation by Lily, but a story which fixes itself into the elite of 1950s New York as snugly as it does into the present day.

This is never an easy task for a writer, but Kerrigan manages to capture both eras beautifully. In one chapter it's all Skype, Twitter and Instagram from a tiny London flat and in the next, it's all Eileen Gray chairs and Poillerat mirrors in the opulence of a chic Manhattan apartment. And in counterpoint to all that glamour, there's the simple tastes of a young Irish emigrant seamstress Honor, who herself trained under Sybil Connolly and who dreams of owning her own couture house someday. She ends up meeting Joy, and the outcome is…well…

This novel is commercial fiction, of course, but what makes it different is the generous sprinkling of designer-tagged fairy dust all over the place.

Despite its darker passages, reading The Dress is a bit like playing with a particularly gorgeous doll's house - it's simply a delicious way to pass the time.

It's a perfect page-turner for the summer holiday, so my advice would be: don't leave home without it.

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