Novel Thoughts: The Secret Lives of Dresses

Erin McKean’s The Secret Lives of Dresses tells the story Dora’s evolution from unassuming, aimless college student to self-assured, motivated small-business owner. After her grandmother’s stroke, Dora finds that her sense of responsibility, along with her sense of self, lay outside her original expectations.

One of the story’s pivotal settings is on the campus of Lymond College. McKean’s description of bulletin boards filled with student jobs and her explanation of Dora’s job at the coffee shop are accurate and adeptly rendered. It becomes clear early on that the author is no stranger to today’s college campus.The conversational tone also lends itself well to this environment. Dora’s thoughts are divulged to the reader in a way makes her relatable and sympathetic.

Mimi, arguably the most important secondary character in the novel, has a unique presence in the book. Or perhaps it’s her lack of presence that makes McKean’s depiction of her so intricate in the story and necessary for the reader. McKean does an excellent job of incorporating a character, of giving a character a voice, without that character actually speaking throughout the entire novel. We know just as well as Dora what Mimi would have to say about any given topic without her actually having to say it.

While Lymond is believable enough for the reader, the town of Forsyth, where Dora lived with Mimi, is not so precisely portrayed. The interaction of the characters with one another and the details we are given about the town itself are incongruous and create confusion for the reader. At one point, we are told the mall now houses an Anthropologie, and we are told that there is more than one Target. At another junction, however, we are told that the door greeter at Costco inquires how Mimi is faring, and everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. While they may seem minor discrepancies, they are enough to remind the reader of the fictitious nature of the story. If the attempt here is to create the feeling of a small town within a larger city, we can safely say the mark has been missed.

McKean also makes numerous references to cultural icons and events of importance during the nineties. She makes reference to the glove in the OJ Simpson trial, for example, and she makes mention of Dora’s Rachel haircut, an obvious reference to the Friends character. While most readers of today will understand these incorporations, they do reduce the timelessness of the story.

The story concludes as we could only hope it would, and McKean’s overall narrative structure doesn’t disappoint. There is adequate conflict, resolution, and reason to celebrate for the reader to ultimately be kept fully engaged.

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