My Mrs. Brown (Edelweiss DRC)
Simon & Schuster
Mrs. Brown is something of an anachronism. In a world that is all social media, selfies, and reality shows, she is a genteel widow who avoids excess at all cost. At sixty-six she has no bucket list and instead works at a small beauty salon sweeping floors and washing out sinks in her retirement. She sews her own clothes in shades of gray, brown, and black. Her modest home is her own, an unremarkable side-by-side duplex.
But since she was a schoolgirl, Mrs. Brown had admired (almost to infatuation) the town’s Grande Dame Millicent Groton–tasteful and stylish, Mrs. Groton lived a life of service usually attributed to royalty. The Grotons had lived for years in a fine Federal-style home: twenty-two rooms of Old Money elegance. Now Mrs. Brown counts herself too lucky to have been chosen to inventory the contents of that old house after Mrs. Groton passes away.
And so begins Mrs. Brown’s Great Adventure.
She meets young Rachel Ames, Mrs. Groton’s devoted assistant who seems to have loved the old lady almost as much as Mrs. Brown. She meets Delphine Staunton, a haughty (and condescending) expert from the auction house that will settle the Groton estate. And, finally, Mrs. Brown meets The Dress.
Black and elegant, it hangs in an almost empty closet. It’s cap-sleeved with “a single-button jacket made of the finest quality wool crepe”. Mrs. Brown is so taken with its simple elegance–Miss Ames tells her that “almost every First Lady in the past thirty years has owned” it–she can’t bring herself to touch it with her work-roughed red hands. The fabric, the lining, the workmanship: exquisite.
So she sets out to save enough money–$7000–to buy the dress for herself. Yes, this same Mrs. Brown who never vacations or eats in restaurants, who still sweeps up after others, whose life has always been so very circumscribed. This single act of extravagance defines Mrs. Brown in ways the reader–and maybe even Mrs. Brown herself–couldn’t imagine.
The novel is definitely an homage to Paul Gallico’s Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris which I read on a whim years ago when I found it in a library discard pile. I didn’t know until I searched for the cover image that writer William Norris is a fashion writer and editor-cum-novelist, and at times the writing was a bit ponderous, especially when characters launched into monologues about fashion that I could do without.
But Norris’s poignant ending makes a fine finish to Mrs. Brown’s sweet story.