ECHO FROM THE PAST
AN AUTHOR WITH A LOVE OF ALL THINGS VINTAGE CRAFTS A MODERN TALE ABOUT THE REDEMPTIVE POWER OF THE PAST
Dressing the Dear loves Kelly Doust HARPERCOLLINS
It’s no surprise Sydney author Kelly Doust is fascinated with the stories behind old things. Her second fiction novel Dressing
the Dear loves explores an old family, a crumbling mansion and vintage clothing, providing a rich backdrop for a story that’s ultimately about the notion of success and failure. The heroine Sylvie Dearlove returns home to the family estate in England, shrouded in the shame and humiliation of her failed fashion label in New York.
There she finds her parents preparing their once grand Somerset country house for sale, no longer able to afford the cost of maintaining it.
“I saw a BBC documentary on families in England living in two rooms of a 100 room house — people living in poverty in these grand old homes,” Kelly says. “The idea behind the novel really came from there.”
It’s also no surprise that Kelly grew up in old houses herself. Her English father made a living from buying old properties, doing them up and reselling them before moving on to his next project.
The family once lived in a building that was one of the first hospitals in Balmain. When they excavated the backyard, they found old surgical instruments and prosthetics.
“I guess I’ve always been preoccupied by old things,” Kelly says. “I started vintage shopping in my teens and have been collecting vintage clothing ever since.”
She says there’s a healthy dash of wish fulfilment when her heroine Sylvie revisits the trunks of exquisite clothes and accessories the Dearlove women have accumulated in the attic for generations.
“I have dreams about coming across amazing old pieces like those,” Kelly laughs. “I actually went back and cut a lot of the fashion detail out of the novel but it was such fun to write about.”
Kelly began her career writing articles and nonfiction books about craft and vintage clothing. Her memoir A Life in Frocks isa collection of essays on the place of fashion and its meaning in our lives.
The jump to fiction was “like learning to write all over again,” she says, but it gave her more scope to create her own stories behind the vintage treasures that inevitably found their way into her novels. Her first, Precious
Things, had as its centrepiece a vintage beaded collar; her second novel contains a veritable treasure trove of fashion history.
“When I see a vintage piece, I always wonder what the story behind it is,” she says. “Sometimes it’s in mint condition and I wonder where did they wear that — was it a cocktail party? Were they wearing it when something momentous happened in history? I’ve tried to weave that into my fiction.”
But Dressing the Dear loves is perhaps less concerned with fashion froufrou than the complexities of what constitutes success and failure. “It’s an interesting topic to explore, that whole area and what it really means in this modern age of social media,” Kelly says.
“The figures show there’s growing loneliness and mental health issues among young people. ‘Comparison syndrome’ is really undermining. It was also interesting to explore that feeling of shame. It’s such a knotty emotion to explore but we all have those emotions. We all experience that.”
Kelly says she didn’t want Sylvie to be “feckless and predictable” and it’s refreshing to find a heroine wrestling with flaws and challenges outside the realms of genre fiction’s stereotypical “strong women”.
But there is one trope that lends a delicious plot twist: the discovery of a family secret. “I love the storytelling device of a secret that readers might be aware of that the characters aren’t,” Kelly says.
“I also find mother/daughter relationships quite fascinating and here there is Sylvie’s grandmother and great-grandmother as well.
“I wanted to show the things that we’ve been told — or that we tell ourselves, the family narrative, can shape the way we are and the way we see ourselves and how shifting those untruths can lead to an uncovering of oneself.”
Kelly, who works in book publishing, says she set out to create some enjoyable escapism that has a familiar vibe to it but with characters who are more real.
“I think it makes it trickier to write a book when you work in publishing,” she says.
“I had to have my author hat on; the publisher hat is too clinical when you’re trying to be creative and write.”
Dressing the Dear loves no doubt ticks more than a few publisher boxes but, in the end, is a satisfying tale of family, friendships and redemption with a splash more depth than can reasonably be expected from novels with hot pink covers.
“WHEN I SEE A VINTAGE PIECE, I ALWAYS WONDER WHAT THE STORY BEHIND IT IS. WERE THEY WEARING IT WHEN SOMETHING MOMENTOUS HAPPENED IN HISTORY?”