The Dressmaker's War: Women Caught up in WWII

Y’all….This. Book.  I have so many feelings and thoughts about this book.  I could not put it down, and yet it was like watching a monumental train wreck.  I could NOT look away.

The book follows Ada Vaughan as she is swept up in the chaos of World War II.  Ada grew up as the oldest sibling in a poor Catholic family in London.  Determined to rise out of poverty, she worked hard to become a dressmaker and model for a fashionable London designer.  She meets the dashing Stanislas von Leiben.  He speaks German, but insists he is Hungarian.  Ada falls hard and fast for Stanislas.  On the eve of the outbreak of war, he persuades Ada to accompany him on a weekend holiday in Paris.  

Then the world falls apart and the war begins.  Ada and Stanislas cannot get back to London, and soon they flee to Belgium.  Once in Belgium, Stanislas disappears leaving Ada all alone as the Germans invade.  Ada must use the only tools left to her to survive:  her wits and her extraordinary skills as a dressmaker.

The author, Mary Chamberlain, is Emeritus Professor of History at Oxford Brookes University.  Some of her other books focus on women’s history.  The female experience in World War II is a major theme in this book.  Although the focus is on Ada, we also get a look at the experience of other females from both sides of the war.  I was struck by how much the women were at the mercy of the men around them, and the almost predatory way the men treated the women.  For every step forward Ada was able to accomplish, the war and the system would put up another roadblock.

This is not to say that Ada was a helpless victim.  As a very young and naive girl, she made foolish mistakes.  I can relate.  I made those same mistakes when I was 18 years old.  I wanted to find love and acceptance, just like Ada.  And also like Ada, I overlooked the flashing red warning signs and forged ahead with a few bad decisions. But unlike Ada, my bad decisions did not land me in enemy territory during World War II.  Once the bad decision was made, she tried to make her way back, but as a woman, the deck was stacked against her.

Watching Ada through my lens of maturity, I want to yell, “Girl, DO NOT do that.  It won’t end well.”  But just like my younger self, she doesn’t listen to people around her.  She makes the mistakes and learns from her experiences.

Despite all this, Ada was determined to survive.  And I cannot help but wonder if I could survive.  Am I a survivor?  What would I do?  I think about these things a lot.  I honestly don’t know what I would have done in that situation, and I don’t know if I could survive, or if would I just give up.  And I do not want to be plopped down in the middle of a world war to find out.

I have so many other thoughts and feelings about this book, but I really cannot discuss them here without writing a lot of spoilers.  So, I will just highly recommend this book.  It is not a feel good book, but it will keep you reading and thinking.  These are the best things about books.  They make us feel and think.  After you read it, reach out to me on Facebook or in the comments and let me know what you think about the rest of it.  I would love to discuss it.


Book:  The Dressmaker’s War

Author:  Mary Chamberlain

Publisher:  Random House

Date Published:  January 12, 2016

Rating:  A-

Source:  Net Galley ARC