BOOK CLUB: Wearing Paper Dresses

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By Anne Brinsden
ISBN: 9781760784850
Imprint: Macmillan Australia

The quote ‘write what you know’ is attributed to the great author, Mark Twain, and though there is debate about whether he meant this figuratively or literally, the fact that Anne Brinsden grew up in the Mallee region of Victoria certainly lends credibility and believability to her writing about life there. Her evocative descriptions of the “Silent skies. The quiet scorch of summer plains” draws you into a world almost inconceivable to many city dwellers in the 50s.   

The desolation and unforgiving landscape is certainly a foreign place for Elise, who is forced to leave the city and follow her husband Bill back to the family farm to help his aging father. Elise was brought up in the comfort and style of middle class city life and finds herself utterly lost in this region of flies, heat and dust, not to mention neighbours who regard her love of coffee and merengue with suspicion and distrust.  The Mallee is a hard place for someone like her, who the locals whisperingly refer to as  highly strung and nervy, and the job of keeping an eye on those nerves falls to her two children, Marjorie and Ruth. 

Throughout the book, and as the girls grow up, Bill seems to want to ignore the signs of Elise’s impending periodic mental instabilities and Pa is the stereotypical hard country man with no idea how to respond to such a delicate disposition.

Not to mention that Marjorie seemingly often makes her mothers nerves worse; ‘… she rushed. Like a bull in a china shop. […] So the bull trampled and crashed all over the place and the delicate, paper-thin porcelain of Elise’s mind wobbled and swayed’.  

After a particularly bad episode Marjorie flees her home and the Mallee for the city, where she finds some balance and a semblance of peace. But the Mallee and a particular boy she left behind are never far from her thoughts. Like the Mallee root buried deep in the ground disrupts the farmers plough, his memory keeps disrupting her thoughts. Can he convince her to return to the land where she grew up?

This book is the debut novel of Anne Brinsden, which I find absolutely astonishing. The way she writes – beautifully descriptive yet not overblown, witty, funny and poignant – made her characters come to life in a way that I think is rare for a first novel. The story is quite a linear one, you won’t find any overly unpredictable twists or outlandish behaviour, instead you almost feel like the people and events she describes could be about people you know; they could almost step off the page they are so authentic.

I loved this book for its beautiful prose and the faithful imaginings of the complex undercurrents of seemingly ordinary lives. I am looking forward to seeing what Anne comes up with next, and I thank Pan MacMillan and Beauty and Lace for the opportunity to read and review this book.

A selection of our Beauty and Lace Club members are reading Wearing Paper Dresses by Anne Brinsden, you can read their reviews in the comments section below. If you have read the book we would love to know what you think!

23 thoughts on “BOOK CLUB: Wearing Paper Dresses

  1. Thanks Beauty and Lace and Pan Macmillan for the opportunity to read and review this first novel of Anna Brinsden.

    I too, like some of the other reviewers, found this a difficult book to get in to.
    To me it was a very ‘heavy’ story, and the narration was just too much for me to be able to really enjoy it.
    The story line , the family struggles, the era, all spoke volumes, but otherwise I felt I just wanted to finish it to see how it ended. To be honest, I did skip a few pages here and there.
    It wasn’t until the last few chapters that I really enjoyed the story line, and then it seemed to just end, with the reader not really knowing how it was all going to turn out.

    I am sure ‘Wearing Paper Dresses’ will be enjoyed by many, but it isn’t a favourite for me.
    Thanks again for the opportunity to read and review it.

  2. A devastating read, very descriptive, at times I found it too involved and detailed but understand this is the way the book is written.
    I found the book hard to get into and read but it definitely told the story of the harsh farming life.

  3. This was an interesting debut novel from Anne Brinsden that will appeal to readers that enjoy a rural setting where life is far from perfect. The story starts out in the city with Elise meeting her husband Bill, who is a country boy at heart who’s come to the city to make money for his family back in the Mallee. Family circumstances means that they have to move back to his family farm where Elise does not fit in at all with the community or the unforgiving countryside. This eventually leads to mental struggles which leaves their two daughters fending for themselves as their mother is too unwell to care for herself let alone her family. After tragedy strikes one of the daughters, Marjorie leaves for the city but she can’t escape the boy from back home that fills her thoughts and the family that she loves. This is a novel that really explores the harshness of Australia’s countryside and how rural communities were in that era in a different way to other novels. An enjoyable read but not the easiest to read at times. Thanks to Pan Macmillan and Beauty and Lace for the opportunity to read this book.

  4. Thank you Beauty and Lace for allowing me to review this book.

    I loved reading this book. This book was very well written and very descriptive. The story line was quite real and believable.
    Even though this book was very tragic to read at times it portrayed many “real life” characters who go unheard off during today and many years ago.

    The themes discussed in this book are very real and need to be talked about not hidden under the carpet so to speak.

    Well done Anne Brinsden, looking forward to reading other books of yours.

  5. Thanks Beauty and Lace for the opportunity to read Wearing Paper Dresses the debut novel by Anne Brinsden.
    Wearing Paper Dresses is set in the 1950s and focuses on Elise and Bill and their return to the Mallee in Victoria with their 2 daughters Ruby and Marjorie to live with and help Bills father Pa run the farm. We follow their story over the years dealing with Elise’s struggles with mental illness and when tragedy strikes the family and how they each cope with that.
    I really enjoyed this book and look forward to seeing if Anne has any more novels in the pipeline.

  6. I was very excited to read this book. Thank you Beauty and Lace! The cover of the book is beautiful. Sadly I started reading and gave up a few chapters in. I questioned myself why I didn’t like it and all I could come up with was that it just didn’t pull the reader in, the plot just fell flat.

  7. Thank you Anne Brinsden. I picked this up just because it “looked” interesting. I will say that i found it hard going to start with and very nearly put it down and away. I am glad that I didn’t because I did find, at some stage, that I just had to finish reading it. I cannot say that I loved it, i found it hard to keep reading in some place but I did like it, and i am glad that I finished reading it. I look forward to reading your next one.

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