Meena Van Praag’s The Dress Shop of Dreams is a captivating novel of enduring hopes, second chances, and the life-changing magic of true love.
Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires. Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry,, and Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.
Discuss this “bighearted, beautiful” novel with your book club this holiday season! (Susan Wiggs)
1. Etta’s dresses give their wearers a magic push to go after their dreams. Have you ever had an item of clothing that especially inspired you to take action that you might not have otherwise? Or perhaps someone or something gave you a push to do something that you might not have initiated on your own?
2. Why do you think Etta’s magic doesn’t work on her?
3. Cora’s father tells her the chemical formula for love is “One proton of faith, three electrons of humility, a neutron of compassion and a bond of honesty.” Do you agree? Would you add anything to this equation?
4. Dylan’s letters bring comfort to many lonely fans of the Night Reader. Do you think that justifies his duplicity?
5. Another possible title for this book was The Night Reader, after Walt and his special secret. Does it change the story for you if you think of Walt as the main character? Which of the characters do you most identify with?
6. On page 142, Cora tells her grandmother that “all the great leaps are made when a scientist thinks of something she can’t yet prove, then dedicates her life to trying.” All of the characters in this book have to make leaps of faith to get something they want. What are some examples?
7. Do you think Etta made a mistake when she decided not to tell Sebastian about their daughter? Would you have made the same decision? Are secrets inherently wrong or sometimes justifiable?
8. Should Henry have fought for Francesca even when she told him she didn’t love him anymore? Do you think she was right to send him away?
9. At the start of the novel, Cora protects herself from pain by focusing on numbers and lab work. But all of the novel’s characters have ways of hiding from their feelings. What do you think these characters are afraid of? Do you ever notice yourself or others around you strategically avoiding difficult truths?
10. As he reads, Walt notices similarities between himself and the characters in his books: he identifies with Emma in Madame Bovary, Marianne from Sense and Sensibility, and Cyrano de Bergerac. Are there other great literary figures you would compare him to? What about Etta? Cora?
11. On page 37, Etta thinks: “It’s a great shame . . . that the heart cannot feel joy without also feeling pain, that it cannot know love without also knowing loss.” Do you agree that it’s true that we cannot love without also suffering?