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!

22 thoughts on “BOOK CLUB: Wearing Paper Dresses

  1. I recently attempted to read this book Wearing Paper Dresses and whilst it is very well written and descriptive, it was not a book I could get into.

  2. Anne Brinsden creates a vision of the Australia of yesteryear. It depicts Aussie language and life as it was in previous generations. This book will delight older readers as they get the chance to reminisce, and will hopefully, delight younger readers as they get a glimpse of how life was lived previously.

    It definitely gets a thumbs up from me! Loved it!

  3. Marjorie loved her Mother and felt protective of her but she knew even as a child that her Mother was different. She saw her amazing talents but she also saw her faults and how fragile she was. Marjorie tried to hide those faults from the others that lived in the small Mallee town. She knew that no matter how hard her Mother had worked to try and fit in the locals did not give her Mother a chance and her Mother did not understand the ways of the locals. Her Mother was not like them and that was just unacceptable to the locals.
    Marjorie and her older sister, Ruby have to get themselves up in the mornings and sort out their own breakfasts, make their own school lunches and then head off to school. Some days there was no breakfast and at times lunch was over looked as well. Their Mother had gone deep inside herself and simply stayed in bed while her husband worked the land and refused to acknowledge that this wife needed help with her mental health.
    This life became their normal until the day there was a horrible accident and Marjorie decides she can no longer stay. She flees to the city and stays with her Auntie. But as often happens when trying to run away she finds that her old life and the boy she shared her heart with finally catches up with her and she is drawn back to The Mallee where wounds are healed, a love rekindled and a new normal begins.

    Anne Brinsden writes beautifully. I really enjoyed this book and found it so very easy to read.
    A perfect holiday read.

  4. This book starts in Melbourne with Elise and Bill. She is a city girl and he is a farmer working in the city and sending money home, to keep his family’s farm afloat. When his mother dies, his father needs physical help as well.

    So, along with their two daughters, they head to the family home in the Mallee. Being of an artistic nature, Elise is very highly strung and not liked by the community. She is not a stereotypical mother or wife and that makes life difficult for all the family. This book details the struggles of farming life, and the trials of fitting in to a rural community. It also marks the beginning of an alternate relationship with her 2 daughters and how the family deals with a horrific tragedy.

    I found the book quite tedious to read, due to the author’s heavy use of personification of inanimate objects, through out the novel. Some may find the book quite well written and it did draw me in, in some parts but I did find the ending an anticlimax.

    Thank you for the opportunity to read this book.

  5. For a debut novel this book is very well written
    Set in the 1950s the family has to move from the city back to the country to help on the failing farm
    Life is hard in the Mallee and mum Elise is not coping at all ( no spoilers )
    Marjorie and Ruby the daughters are left to fend for themselves as best as they can
    Bill and pa are hard workers from morning to nightfall
    Really enjoyed this book
    Thanks

    1. 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.

  6. “Wearing Paper Dresses” is a novel that completely surprised me; the blurb did not adequately reflect the words inside. Mind you, it was a positive surprise – I loved this book, loved the unexpected style, and found it far more moving than I’d initially expected.

    This is the story of Elise, a cosmopolitan city girl who meets her husband in Melbourne after World War II. He’s come to find a job to help the family farm during a time of drought. He finds work, and Elise; mismatched on the surface, their marriage is nevertheless a good one. They have two girls.

    And then Bill’s Pa insists he returns to the farm to help out in a different way. Elise, polished and elegant, is immediately regarded with suspicion by the locals. She makes an effort to fit in, but somehow everything she does is wrong. As the isolation and rejection begin to affect her, so does her mental health begin to slip. This is not a good thing in a time and place that doesn’t even know the term, let alone know how to help people who are struggling with their mental health. Nor do her two young daughters know how to cope with their mother, or with life in general with no real guidance from anyone.

    Brinsden has anthropomorphised the Mallee – an area of the Australian country that is rural, relatively remote, and very very different from towns. She speaks of it as a sentient entity, affecting people in ways both malign and specific. This is one of the things that really makes this novel stand out – it brings the Australian bush to life in ways both lyrical and unexpected.

    Brinsden’s lyrical style also allows her to give voice to individuals who are inarticulate and reserved. Most of the characters are like that, yet Brinsden makes each distinct, and makes readers feel that they know what is happening in their heads and hearts.

    I somehow expected a more prosaic writing style. It’s Brinsden’s approach to the Mallee, and the tone of her prose in general, that makes this novel far different from the average novel about city transplants struggling in the bush.

    There is much in this novel which is sad, or unsettling. It’s also a novel with a great deal of love in it, and ultimately a strong sense of hope. I wouldn’t say this is an inspirational novel by any stretch, but it is one that leaves you feeling good about people in general, and their capacity to care about each other.

    I really loved this. The prose drew me in far more deeply than I’d expected, and I found the vein of hope that ran through “Wearing Paper Dresses” deeply moving. It’s a wonderful study of people, place and time, one that I think will prove memorable.

  7. Wearing Paper Dresses is Anne Brinsden’s first novel.
    It’s a very poetically written book looking at the family life of Bill, Elise, Ruby and Marjorie who start there life living in the city but move to the Northern Victorian mallee where Bill returns to the family farm. Told in the third person and mostly looking at the thoughts of Marjorie and Elise I found it took a lot of concentration to read and follow but yet I was sucked in by the story line..
    I found it quite frustrating that two young girls were left to ‘look’ after there mentally unstable mother a lot of the time, Elise’s condition was magnified when they moved to the country, her ways were scoffed at by many locals and made it very hard for Elise to fit in.
    The story looked at how small communities pull together in tough times, but also the stigma surrounding someone who is a bit ‘different’ to what they’re used to.
    Add a bit of romance in the mix and you have a book that although isn’t an easy read has you sucked in and turning the pages right to the end!
    Thank you to Beauty and Lace and Pan Macmillan for the chance to read and review Wearing Paper Dresses.

  8. Thanks Beauty and Lace and Pan Macmillan for the opportunity to read and review this first novel of Anna Brinsden.
    Its a book that evokes lots of different emotions for the characters – sympathy for the daughters, support for Elise in her struggles and impatience with the locals for their lack of empathy and support.
    Maybe that is the way they coped in the country in those times.
    Well written and descriptive, this book will be enjoyed by a wide audience.

  9. Wearing Paper Dresses by Anne Brinsden

    Elise is a city girl, who meets Bill when he has to head to the city in the 1950’s to earn a living to support his family’s mallee farm. They marry and have two daughters. But then Bill’s mother dies, and his father asks him to come back to the mallee to work the farm with him.
    Elise is torn away from the only life she has ever known, and thrust into the heat, the flies, and the red dust of the Mallee. Living in an old farm house with her father in law Pa, two small daughters to care for, and her husband Bill away in the paddocks all day, Elise flounders with day to day life. She doesn’t fit in with the locals, who all see her as a highly strung city slicker. Her attempts to make a pretty garden are met with scorn and head shaking by everyone, and the clothes she wears and the “posh” food she cooks make her an oddity in town.
    Elise struggles more and more, unable to cope. She draws into her self, and her daughters Ruby and Marjorie are left to fend for themselves. Times are hard, money is a luxury, and help with Elise’s declining mental health is non existent.
    As a tragedy explodes which rocks Marjorie’s and Ruby’s world, the locals band together, as country folk do, and Bill and Pa discover that folk do care, and will step up to help their fellow mates.

    I found this a tough read due to is subject matter, but it was well written and kept the reader wanting to know more.
    Thanks to Beauty and Lace Book Club, and to Pan Macmillan for the chance to read this.

  10. I really loved this novel from start to finish. Not only was the storyline very believable but the descriptions of the mallee were breathtakingly accurate. My imagination was captured by the way the author brings life to the wind, the fire, the dust, the drought, the mallee roots and enters into the deeper nature of such natural phenomena – it reminds me of an alchemical process. The ending really moved me as I was transported into the magic of the opera presented in a small country community. The story certainly depicts the resilience and resourcefulness of people living in unforgiving climates and remote communities. Definitely one of my favourite reads this year so far. Pure magic !!!!!.

  11. Thank you Beauty and Lace for the opportunity to read Wearing Paper Dresses by Anne Brinsden.
    As soon as I saw the beautiful cover of this book I knew it would be a beautiful story.

    This is a book about living in the middle of The Mallee. It’s unforgiving droughts, mental illness, hard times and coping with extreme situations.

    Elise is a city girl through and through so when she meets and falls in love with country boy Bill it surprises their families.
    After Bill and Elise marry, Bill is called back to the family farm in the middle of The Malee where Elise finds life quiet challenging with their two daughters.

    The locals can’t understand why a lady would drink coffee and make meringues instead of scones!!

    Set in the 1950’s where mental illness is not understood especially in The Mallee.

    Tragedy strikes this family and they will never be the same again.
    Can the family pull together and try to cope with their grief in their own ways?

    I found this story sucked me in to their world and into their unforgiving land like I was there.

    #BeautyandLace#
    #BeautyandLacebooks#
    #BeautyandLaceOnline#
    #PanMacmillanAustralia#

  12. This was a difficult read for me. I struggled with the narration style of the novel, it did nothing to draw me in and took a good 90 pages for me to get used to the style of narration and the ‘being told a story’ rather than feeling part of the story.

    The prose was lyrical and at times it had some profound things to say such as “Because Marjorie saw that some people are chipped and damaged, cracked and frayed, exquisite and talented. But they care. They love whatever they can. In spite of their madness and their sadness, they still try. But some people are just mean bastards.”

    But its lyrical way of being narrated didn’t work for me, I wasn’t really drawn into the story until nearly halfway and even then I wasn’t really enjoying it, just reading because I wanted to get to the end and find out what, if anything, happened. And really for a novel of nearly 400 pages, not too much did happen.

    It is a story about mental illness, the struggles it can cause not just for the person suffering, but those who care for that person. Elise has a serious mental illness and this is the cause of a massive tragedy, it is also the cause of many smaller tragedies that affect her children, her husband, and her father-in-law. The people in the country weren’t particularly kind people, they were judgemental and cruel at times, and at others banded together, but often too late.

    It’s definitely not a happy story and it mostly focuses on Marjorie who is at times cruel and unfeeling, but I think this can be related to the struggles of dealing with her mother.

    Many people have thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.

  13. Wearing Paper Dresses by Anne Brinsden is set in country Australia and covers the lives of Elise and Bill. Elise is a city girl and Bill is a farmer who is working in the city to earn extra money to be able to send it home to help keep his families farm afloat.

    After the death of Bill’s mother Elise and Bill together with their two girls Marjorie and Ruby move the family back to Bill’s family home in the Mallee. Elise doesn’t settle into the Mallee very well as she is quite highly strung and artistic which the community is not used to. Marjorie does try to help her mother fit in but this doesn’t always go well.

    The family has many highs, lows and horrific tragedy which they need to learn to deal with which just adds to the stresses for Elise living in the Mallee.

    A great book and story line, but I did find it hard to get into at first but once I did, I wanted to keep the pages turning.

  14. This was a challenging book for me to really get into and whilst clearly well written, didnt seem to go anywhere for me.

    The struggles faced by those supporting mental illness was clearly depicted and the narrowness of the way people once saw mental illness, particular in the country is confronting and disappointing.

    The detail in the landscape and the struggles and experiences of the characters was really well conveyed and I would love to read something else from this author but for me this book didnt ‘speak to me’.

  15. Wearing Paper Dresses is not my usual genre of choice however I must say for a first novel it was very well written.

    Whilst not my favourite style of writing, I did however find myself enjoying the book and I really loved the language used throughout the story and the references to both the past and present. From personal experiences I could relate to the mental illness bought up during the story and was impressed with how it was portrayed. I have passed this book on to my mother who will then pass it on to my grandmother and I can see them both absolutely loving it.

    Thank you Anne Brisden – congratulations on your debut novel!

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

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