The Hatmaker’s Heart
About This Book
For Nell Marchwold, bliss is seeing the transformation when someone gets a glimpse in the mirror while wearing one of her creations and feels beautiful. Nell has always strived to create hats that bring out a woman’s best qualities. She knows she’s fortunate to have landed a job as an apprentice designer at the prominent Oscar Fields Millinery in New York City. Yet when Nell’s fresh designs begin to catch on, her boss holds her back from the limelight, claiming the stutter she’s had since childhood reflects poorly on her and his salon.
But it seems Nell’s gift won’t be hidden by Oscar’s efforts. Soon an up-and-coming fashion designer is seeking her out as a partner of his 1922 collection. The publicity leads to an opportunity for Nell to make hates in London for a royal wedding. There, she sees her childhood friend, Quentin, and an unexpected spark kindles between them. But thanks to her success, Oscar is determined to keep her. As her heart tugs in two directions, Nell must decide what she is willing to sacrifice for her dream, and what her dream truly is.
The overall writing style was very good, though spelling, grammatical and formatting errors caught my attention at least a dozen times. (I was reading an unedited DRC, however, so I trust these mistakes were corrected before final publication.) There were some wonderful descriptions and metaphors that really helped me connect to the sensory story world: the smells of the restaurants, the dazzle of the fancy gowns and hats; and the longing for home and family that really defined Nell as a character.
The dialogue was excellent, well-peppered with words and slang from the 1920s to really make the era come to life, but not so much as to be confusing. It was always clear who was speaking and to whom, although the characters did all rather sound the same, except for when Nell stammered. Speaking of the stammer, that’s another dialogue that could’ve been annoyingly overdone, but I never felt that it was.
Nell is the only point-of-view character, and therefore the only one we are given the opportunity to connect with. She was fairly fleshed out, although her Kentucky connections could have been better developed, especially in light of the story’s ending in Louisville. While we see a good deal of her aunt and cousins when they come to visit her in New York, we see next to nothing of her mother, sister or stepfather, the people she supposedly misses the most and for whom she ultimately returns to Kentucky for good.
Several of the secondary characters were extremely well developed (Oscar, Calvin, Mrs. Benchley, Dr. Underwood), while others whom I felt were supposed to be even more important to the story (Quentin, Harjo Pritchard, Nell’s roommates) weren’t. And there was quite a bit of fuss about Nell’s cousins in one scene near the end that I can only assume means they’ll have stories of their own after this. (If they don’t, then some of that final drama was rather pointless.)
The research and story world were excellent, offering great period detail without too much confusion. A couple scenes felt a bit gratuitous, as if they were only added to/left in the story just for historical show (the whole nightclub bombing scene on New Year’s Eve comes to mind), but overall the Roaring Twenties were very well presented, and the action of the story was firmly grounded in its historical time and place.
The spiritual and religious elements of this story were very subdued, in a way I felt was very appropriate for the characters and the historical setting. Nell was equally at home attending mass with her Catholic neighbors in New York, an Anglican service in London, and something like an Episcopalian service again in New York. Quentin was described as a vicar’s son, and he and Nell first met as children in a catechism class. Quentin prayed over a meal in a public restaurant, and Nell kept a scripture verse embroidery from her grandmother prominently displayed in her apartment.
I know there have been a good number of stories lately that are set in the 1920s, but I’m not familiar enough with all of them to know if this one is original by comparison. I’m tempted to believe the millinery angle is unique. As a work of historical fiction, this coming-of-age, finding-her-true-self story was fairly formulaic and predictable, but not unpleasantly so.
This book would appeal to women readers of all ages, including teen and new adult readers, and the spiritual message of this book is subdued enough that I would not have a concern in recommending it to my non-Christian friends. This book was highly engaging. I read it one sitting and could not put it down. Nell’s story felt complete, but I could see other characters like her roommates or cousins carrying on a series. While I received a free Digital Review Copy, this is a book I would buy for my Keeper Shelf and read again, and enjoy recommending to others.
It is often a challenge for me to enjoy stories with only one POV character because they tend to make the story structure feel claustrophobic to me, giving only one perspective when I’m dying to know what other major characters are thinking and feeling. I didn’t feel that with this story, but I did feel the single POV hindered the pace of the story in the end because it forced some of the action to happen “off-screen,” and Nell only finds out about it after the fact. As a result, the ending felt rushed and too much based on coincidence and contrivance for my taste (the grandmothers’ death and Nell’s sudden inheritance, Quentin’s broken engagement and relocation to America, etc.).
I also felt that, after being so thoroughly grounded in the New York and even London story worlds, the final scene in Kentucky was quite out of place, and it felt like rather a cop-out for Nell. I would’ve preferred to see her stick it out in New York, continue with her career on her own terms where she was thoroughly connected and already building a prominent clientele. After all, the way she making a name for herself throughout the story, it was completely logical to me that another millinery would’ve snatched her up in a heartbeat, or even that she’d used her inheritance to go into business for herself in New York, stealing a few of her trusted coworkers away with her. Either that, or I wanted to see more of her Kentucky connection throughout the story—even starting the story a bit earlier to show the moment at the Kentucky Derby when Oscar first “talent spots” her and entices her to New York—so that returning to Kentucky in the end would’ve felt like a logical, full-circle conclusion.
There was GREAT conflict and tension between Nell and her boss, Oscar. He was the absolute yummiest kind of smarmy character every reader will love to hate. Which is good, because Oscar was not only in the driver’s seat of Nell’s life, but of the entire story. He alone drove the story forward, and Nell was helpless to stop him until practically the end. The “evil puppet master” kind of conflict and tension is tough to sustain for an entire book, but Stewart pulled it off here. The one thing we don’t get, however, is any glimpse of what happens to Oscar after Nell leaves. Does he get away with it all? Does he get a proper come-uppance? I would’ve loved to know.
I believe the sessions between Nell and Dr. Underwood, attempting to delve into the subconscious causes of her stutter, were supposed to add additional tension to the story by revealing more of Nell’s family back story, but it didn’t quite work for me.
Unfortunately, when it came to romantic tension, the story completely missed the mark for me. While Nell is allegedly pining for Quentin, her childhood sweetheart back in England, we see only three letters exchanged between them and only two in-person meetings while she’s in London—at one of which he’s on a date with another woman, and at the other he tells her he’s engaged to yet another woman! All well and good if he then disappeared from the story and Nell went on with her life, but when the final scene revolved entirely around their romantic reunion, it just really felt false and out of place in the story. For my part, I would’ve left any ideas of romance out of this novel entirely, and focused solely on Nell’s personal, coming-of-age, finding-herself journey, perhaps with a beau on the back burner.
In terms of potentially questionable content, Nell and her friends visit speakeasies, and several characters imbibe in illegal liquor. At one club, Nell’s drink is laced, and later a party she willfully drinks champagne and wine with the implied intention of getting drunk. A couple characters smoke. Nell is mistaken for a prostitute by a policeman at one point. There is a scene in which Nell walks in on two characters having sex. It is implied one of Nell’s roommates is expected and willing to exchange sexual favors for an acting job. Overall, however, none of these scenes were graphically described or thrown into the story just for mere shock value, but were organic to the plot and setting.
Fans of period productions such as Downton Abbey, House of Eliott and Mr. Selfridge will enjoy this well-written coming-of-age story set in the glamorous world of early 1920s haute couture. Nell’s journey from timid milliner’s apprentice to confident designer offers women of all ages an exciting story about learning to be true to one’s self and daring to trust the dreams God has given. While this book didn’t offer the romance I had expected, it was nevertheless an engaging and worthwhile story that places this author firmly on my one-to-watch list.
Available June 3, 2014 from FaithWords