An unassuming yet magnetic older woman becomes possessed by the notion of acquiring an Oscar de la Renta dress.
This droll little fairy tale of a novel by fashion writer Norwich (Learning to Drive, 1996, etc.) tells the story of Emilia Brown, known exclusively as Mrs. Brown, a quiet, serious, hardworking woman of 66 who has lived all her life in the small town of Ashville, Rhode Island, est. 1649. Mrs. Brown “was not a career woman”—her current jobs are cleaning a beauty parlor and taking in mending—“avoided excesses of any sort,” “tried never to let a tear drop,” and “didn’t have a bucket list.” Yet despite her plain Yankee exterior, she has a dignity and luminosity of spirit that draws people to her, at least those people with the sensitivity to see what lies behind the wren’s feathers. The catty beauticians in her salon are not in this group. Among Mrs. Brown’s devoted fans are her 23-year-old tenant, Alice, a thoroughly modern girl from Vancouver who wears motorcycle boots, tight jeans, and a T-shirt that says I’LL STOP WEARING BLACK WHEN THEY INVENT A DARKER COLOR; a famous biracial fashion model named Florida James, staying with Mrs. Brown while she finishes up at the local college; and a fashionista named Rachel Ames, who was the personal assistant to the great lady of Ashville until her death. This great lady, Mrs. Groton, was Mrs. Brown’s lifelong idol, and she eagerly signs up for the job of helping inventory her house for the estate auction. In the process, she sees a dress, a ladylike black sheath with a jacket, that she becomes obsessed with, refocusing her life around the plan of amassing thousands of dollars and traveling to New York to get it. What remains a mystery until the very end of the novel is the occasion for which she needs such a thing. As Alice thinks to herself one night after the two have their regular evening visit, “I may not always understand [her],” but “she’s my Mrs. Brown.”
Like its main character, appealing, sweet, old-fashioned—and, at heart, very sad.