Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black places you behind the counter and into the lives of the associates of women’s frocks (dresses) at Goode’s, an upscale department store in Sydney, Australia in the 1950s. Their signature black smocks set them apart from the customers. Lisa, a plain and unworldly teenager, is hired on as temporary help for the Christmas rush while she awaits the results of her leaving exams (high school graduation exams) which will determine the course of her future. Lisa’s time is split between the main floor, working with Patty, Fay, and a few other ladies, and helping Magda, the cultured and beautiful Slovenian emigre, with the exclusive glamour gowns. Lisa’s perspective on life and her self-image will never be the same after Magda takes an interest in transforming and refining her into a continental lady. While Lisa’s life is blooming, Fay is tired of the repetitious cycle of similar men through her life, worrying she will never find Mr. Right, and Patty is dealing with the unexpected disappearance of her husband Frank. If only life were as easy as picking a dress!
The Women in Black is a classic “comedy of manners”, published in 1993, adapted into a musical and a film, and republished for new audiences this year. It is a charming tale that is filled with terms, styles, and conventions of 1950s Australia. St. John also writes in the style of the time which adds even more authenticity to the story. Because of its retro style, number of characters, and gradual unfolding of the story-lines it takes a few chapters for your brain to adjust and sort everything out. However, the further you go the more entrapping and enjoyable it becomes.
I love how books can be windows into other times and places. The Women in Black is a wonderful piece of history and gives a reader a glimpse into to the lives and thought processes of women in 1950’s Australia. It really demonstrates the notion that while much has changed in society there are many things about relationships that stay the same.