Reviewed by Emma Crowley
London 1945. A young war widow steps aboard a train in search of a new life. Clutching the key to a mysterious inheritance, Vanessa Kingcourt can no longer resist the pull of the old Farren Theatre - an enchanted place seeped in memories of her actor father.
Now owned by troubled former captain Alistair Redenhall, The Farren is in need of a Wardrobe Mistress and a new lease of life. With no experience and no budget for supplies, Vanessa must use her intuition to create beautiful costumes from whatever scraps of silk and thread survived the blitz. It's a seemingly impossible task, but a welcome distraction as she struggles to resist her blossoming feelings for Alistair.
What Vanessa discovers could unravel family secrets sewn deep into the very fabric of the London theatre scene . . . but will she repeat the same terrible mistakes her father made? And can she dare to love a man who will never be hers?
I felt like I had been waiting for ages for the new book from Natalie Meg Evans to be published and when finally I got my hands on The Wardrobe Mistress I couldn't wait to read it. I have loved everything the author has written in the past and she has become one of my favourite historical fiction authors. Both the cover and the blurb for this new book seemed very intriguing and I felt another very good read was in store. The book is split into four parts and follows the story of Vanessa Kingcourt as she undertakes a journey to uncover family secrets which if revealed could change everything she had believed to be true. The brief prologue was very intriguing and takes us back to a very young Vanessa as she goes to the theatre with her father at Christmas. It's all such a wonder to her but something unusual happens which despite her age will stay in her mind for a very long time to come.
The story then jumped in time to 1945 and I felt we were back on familiar territory as the author had written about the war in her previous books but as it was in the closing stages the war itself would not dominate the remainder of the story, and it became clear the author was edging away from what she had written before and venturing to a whole new world – the world of theatre. It took me quite some time to get into the pace of the story as with the author's previous books I thought there was lots going on and they were full of mystery and suspense. The mystery was here but I found the pace slower and at some points hard going as not much happened. It was in the later half of the book that I found myself really getting into the story as everything started to come together piece by piece and things were ramped up more than a notch.
Emerging from the war after spending years as a wireless operator, Vanessa is without direction having lost her husband. She needs to reconnect with her family as she has not seen her father for 19 years and the relationship she has with her mother is strained and complicated. But events conspire against her and reuniting with her father is not be. What next for Vanessa? An encounter with a ship's captain Alastair Redenhall leads to a journey which Vanessa never expected to undertake that has connections and twists and turns that the reader would never have foreseen.
The story then unfolded told from the perspectives of Vanessa and Alastair. Alastair has inherited a theatre from his godfather which couldn't be more different from the times he has spent away fighting at sea. He is doing his best to get a new production up and running in the hopes of bringing the glory days back to the Farren theatre. A ray of light on the streets of London after so many years in the darkness of war. Combined with this his personal life is not the best as he is battling with his wife. There is an emotional tug of war as Fern wants a divorce but he is not willing to give it to her. Fern was one of the best characters in the book. She had wit and was able to wind people around her little finger. She played a game of cat and mouse and was quite clever behind it all. I thought Alastair was an enigma of sorts in that sides to his character were very slowly revealed or that what you believed to be true about him wasn't right at all. He presented many different personas. as did lots of characters in this book, and given it focused on the theatre and the stage that would seem apt given actors play so many different roles across their lifetimes. Alastair had a tough image as a sea captain and now he had to take on this new role and make the theatre profitable once again. There was something about him, the way he was written that made me feel I could like this man if I met him in real life. That beneath the exterior he presents to the employees of the theatre or even his dealings with his wife that there was a softer side to him. That he could be a man filled with compassion and understanding and he shows his softer side as he gets to know Vanessa more.
It's against the backdrop of the rehearsals and pre-production for the play that Vanessa once again comes into contact with Alastair. She responds to the advertisement looking for a wardrobe mistress. Given she has no real experience it is surprising she gets the job but as the reader comes to know her better it's a mark of her character that once she sets her mind to something she never backs down nor gives up but stands firm until she works and works to achieve something and to find answers. For that is what she is looking for too, her father had been an actor and although towards the end his career may not have been glittering she still wants to know more about him and her family heritage. Why did that visit to the Farren Theatre where she is now employed stay so vividly in her mind?
Vanessa like any character did have her vulnerable side too. She was lonely and hurt after her experiences in the war and given she had lost her husband despite the briefness of the marriage she must have been bewildered at what her next step would be. But soon Alastair inspires something in her, reawakens what has been dormant, an emotional pull that given the chance could blossom into something more but is there too much against them for happiness to be achieved? At the same time the opportunity to uncover things people want secret proves too hard too resist for Vanessa and just what is the significance of a certain item she wears around her neck?
There were an awful lot of characters introduced as the story progressed and that was understandable given the cast of the play and the people who had invested in the theatre. Some of the characters I paid little heed to although there was one loitering on the sidelines whom struck me as being odd yet significant. As Vanessa adapts to her new role as wardrobe mistress and attempts to get the costumes ready for the opening of the show there were a few twists and turns yet nothing major. I felt everything was slowly very slowly building and building to a dramatic conclusion and I would have been disappointed if this had not been the case. I felt the overall tone of the book was of tension and nervousness and at times I thought it was quite dark compared to the author's previous books. Where the author did excel was the descriptions of the theatre itself, the creation of the costumes, the routine and rehearsals for the play and how the actors prepared. Clearly a lot of in-depth research had gone into this and that's what I love about Natalie Meg Evans novels the research combined with a story that grips you and has you asking so many questions in a bid to tie up loose ends.
The Wardrobe Mistress wasn't my favourite read from this author still none the less it is a very good read. I think I didn't favour it as much as her previous books because for me the pace picked up slightly too late. The latter sections of the book kept me rapidly turning the pages desperately searching for all the answers just as Vanessa so desperately was too. Just when you thought everything was resolving itself something else was thrown in putting everything off track. All the little clues laid down throughout the book became red herrings and I was surprised more than once towards the end at all the revelations unfolding. It paid off to keep going with this story despite my misgivings about the earlier parts of the book and I think most people will enjoy this new story from Natalie Meg Evans.
Many thanks to Quercus Books for my copy of The Wardrobe Mistress to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.