Sunday, 27 July 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Aren't We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson

published 2014



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES





She put the hand mirror back and got up to unbutton her uniform dress. Beneath it she was wearing her nicest underwear, a gleaming close-fitting rose-pink crepe de chine. Pity about the stockings, workaday lisle; but anything better might be noticed. AT least they were a decent fit, and didn’t matter much. Her dress mattered more and would stay hidden until –unless – it was needed. She opened the cupboard and took out her raincoat: she had hung the dress behind it, smuggled it into the office that morning folded into tissue paper in her nurse’s bag. She took it out now on its special padded hanger and gave it a little shake.



The dress was of plain black jersey, and its skirt had a dancing swing, as if it had a life of its own. There were three small buttons at the neck, on a neat little placket, and the black silk label hand-sewn into the collar read Gabrielle Chanel Paris, embroidered in gold; it was Lettie’s dearest favourite, had been so ever since she had unobtrusively removed it from the dressing room of a grateful patient the year before.




observations: The Booker Prize longlist has just been announced: 10 men and 3 women. Pity they didn’t find room for Patricia Ferguson on it – this is one of the best new books I have read this year.

The marvellous Amanda Craig (see her Vicious Circle here on the blog) recommended it to me – I’d listen to her reco’s anyway, but her exact words on Twitter were ‘fab description of evil blackmailer’s lust for couture’ so it would have been impossible to resist in any circumstances.

And I am so grateful: what a terrific book. I liked a previous novel by Ferguson – Peripheral Vision, here on the blog - well enough, but this one was a tour de force. (Apparently it’s a sequel to her book The Midwife’s Daughter, but can be read as a standalone.)

Ferguson is not looking to make Aren’t We Sisters? instantly likeable or an easy read: it starts with a rather grim description of an internal examination, and there’s a lot more in similar mode to come. The themes of the book are childbirth, sex, family planning and above all women’s sovereignty over their own bodies. I think Ferguson is staking a claim, laying out a thesis that men’s doings are automatically allowed in fiction, but that women’s concerns can be dismissed more easily – ‘Now, says Dickens, now we can get on to the really important stuff, the proper story, the real story. Now we’ve got those dead mothers out of the way.’

It probably doesn’t make it an easy sell, but the book is much more readable and entertaining than that sounds: it is very gripping – you really do want to know what is going to happen to these characters – and also very very funny. The class consciousness in the small town in Cornwall in the 1930s is hilarious, and Ferguson gives a convincing voice to three very different women: a family planning nurse on the make, a come-down-in-the-world spinster, and a film star hiding her secrets from the world.

More to come on this book.

The underwear is from a magazine advert: the other picture is Coco Chanel herself in one of her little black dresses, and is from Dovima is devine.

13 comments:

  1. Oh, my gosh, another good book to add to the TBR list. This sounds good -- women's health and class consciousness in the 1930s. How can I avoid it?
    And if it's a sequel to "The Midwife's Daughter," I'll have to recommend both to my retired midwife friend.

    I was irked to see that only 3 of 13 Booker nominees are women writers. I thought more progress was being made for women authors. More work to do (sigh).

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    1. I really love this book, and felt it had a lot of great things to say about women's issues. It came at just the moment I was feeling annoyed about the Booker....

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  2. Moira - I'd heard of this book, but not read it. It sounds like a real mix of social commentary and character study. Of course, as you say, when strong points of view are expressed - especially when they may not be universally shared - that can make a book challenging to read. But still, this one sounds well-written. And a blackmailer with a love of couture? Yes, right up your street ;-)

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    1. I think some people might find the subject matter challenging or annoying, but she is an excellent writer - I hope people will give her a chance.

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  3. And I love the dress, hat and necklaces on the bottom photo. Now if only I had that dress and hat!

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    1. Indeed - I think we could all do with a Chanel outfit...

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  4. Definitely more you than me. The humour appeals the most, but the themes don't cry out to me. Sorry, I'll pass.

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    1. You're let off because you have so many other books to read - otherwise I might have had a go at persuading you....

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  5. I always have to suppress the urge to snort derisively when an author namedrops a "name" and I just think "Yeah, right, sweetcheeks." In this instance, it is just about barely possible that someone might pinch a Chanel dress from a patient, although I am now thinking "How did a nurse manage to get away with stealing a VERY expensive couture dress, much less a CHANEL, without anyone kicking up a fuss?"

    I have the same reaction to another book, whose author I won't name because I adore their work and they're usually absolutely awesome and brilliant and so wonderfully detailed, where he has a victim killed off while wearing a vintage Balenciaga dress. Again, I just think - "Yeah, RIGHT - what self respecting vintage wearer would wear a Balenciaga dress probably worth quite a few hundred quid if not 4 figures, to be squashed and crushed in the London Underground?"

    On the other hand the Schiaparelli dress in Muriel Spark's "The Girls of Slender Means" is BRILLIANTLY chosen - it's an absolutely credible designer choice for a single "good evening dress" handed down by a rich aunt, and there is no suspension of disbelief needed there.

    Sometimes I think authors realy need to be more aware of what would be within the means of their audience and the kind of designers they would be likely to have access to.

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    1. Thanks Daniel for your hilarious contribution - I love someone else who takes their clothes seriously. I chose this for the Girls of Slender Means Schiaparelli: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-slender-girls-are-sharing-dresses.html
      Keep meaning to look up that Corelli book you mentioned a while back...

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    2. Oh you must! Not least because it's freely available online and I'm sure you could probably get it in eBook format for the Kindle. It's certainly available here: https://archive.org/details/freeopinionsfree01core

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  6. The subject matter does sound challenging but probably worth it. I look forward to hearing more about this book.

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    1. A few bits made hard reading, but it was so good overall it was worth it.

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