Isobel Wolff’s novel is a charming surprise, offering tender images of gentle people and recovery from sadness and regret that seems to seep into her central protagonist’s consciousness. Clearly the only real antidote is time as Phoebe Swift seeks relief from her hectic, stressful life at Sotheby’s and uses her love of vintage clothes to open a boutique dress shop in London’s Blackheath.
Her life awash in beautiful fabrics of her new Village Vintage store, Phoebe enjoys a close relationship with her mother, an obsessive compulsive who, as the novel opens, is contemplating cosmetic surgery. There’s also the pleasures of Phoebe’s sixty-something father, who has stumbled into an affair with a younger woman and fathered a child with no idea of the turmoil that will follow.
All the while, Phoebe’s memories of her childhood friend Emma tumble around in her brain on a loop. Helping her find a way towards a place of security is Annie, Phoebe’s friendly shop assistant, who helps with the ironing, small repairs and dressing the windows.
Other characters appear: Dan, a journalist with zero color sense who runs the local newspaper, and handsome Miles, overprotective of Roxy, his ruthlessly selfish spoiled brat of a daughter. At first a welcome distraction,
her affair with Miles becomes complicated as Phoebe realizes that he has danced too much attendance on Roxy over the years.
When Phoebe gets an offer to buy a collection of vintage from elderly Mrs. Bell, she learns of her life in Avignon. Phoebe’s eye is drawn to a blue woolen coat hanging alongside a collection of dresses. The garment from the 1940s is so clearly cherished, with a reused silk lining and handmade with considerable skill. Phoebe can come up with no theory for the coat‘s existence. Who in the winter of 1943 needed it more than she did?
The respective tales of Monique and Emma merge as Phoebe is gripped by a desire to know about Mrs. Bell’s past, perhaps prompted by some inner compulsion and sense of guilt that she didn‘t do more for Emma. Yet the question remains:
why did Mrs. Bell never told anyone about the tragedy of her best friend, Monique, and Monique’s connection to the mercurial blue coat?
Amid the stylish silver mannequins, a Balenciaga opera coat, a Givenchy suit, French embroidered nightdresses and even an evening gown circa 1936, by the great Madame Gres, we see the euphoria of Phoebe’s passion and a childhood friendship tested to destruction. Wolff’s love of vintage clothing always shines through as these delicate pieces of the past are woven together, becoming a powerful symbol for Phoebe
trying to mend her life with knowledge and with understanding.