Summary: Emmalee Bullard and her new baby are on their own. Or so she thinks, until Leona Lane, the older seamstress who sat by her side at the local shirt factory where both women worked as collar makers, insists Emmalee come and live with her. Just as Emmalee prepares to escape her hardscrabble life in Red Chert holler, Leona dies tragically. Grief-stricken, Emmalee decides she’ll make Leona’s burying dress, but there are plenty of people who don't think the unmarried Emmalee should design a dress for a Christian woman - or care for a child on her own. But with every stitch, Emmalee struggles to do what is right for her daughter and to honor Leona the best way she can, finding unlikely support among an indomitable group of seamstresses and the town’s funeral director. In a moving tale exploring Southern spirit and camaraderie among working women, a young mother will compel a town to become a community. -- Broadway Books
I need to preface this review for THE FUNERAL DRESS by Susan Gregg Gilmore by saying that I know the author and even consider her a friend. That said, I truly enjoyed THE FUNERAL DRESS and it epitomizes everything I've come to love about Southern fiction. This novel is touching and warmed my heart, and I'm one hundred percent sure that my friendship with Susan hasn't swayed my opinion of her latest novel one bit!
When I picked up THE FUNERAL DRESS, I knew absolutely nothing about the novel. I didn't even read the publisher's summary... which is rare for me. I can't explain why I didn't read the description, but I'm so glad I didn't. I actually think my reaction to the novel was different (and by that I mean better) because I was able to experience the story without any expectations. Not to mention that I was surprised by what occurred in the first few chapters of the book!
So, it's with a slight hesitation that I even try to summarize the story. If you want the "official" one, you can certainly read the publisher's summary at the beginning of my review. I'll just say this: THE FUNERAL DRESS tells the story of Emmalee Bullard, a young woman who doesn't have a whole lot of good going on in her life. She lives in a run down house with an alcoholic (and abusive) father, and she's just given birth to a baby that she is bringing up on her own. Just when she thinks her life might turn around, something horrible happens; and Emmalee thinks that she has lost her chance of ever finding happiness. Everything (and everyone) seems to be against her; however, Emmalee discovers that she possesses an inner strength as well as a strong support system of friends which will help her find her way.
I really, really liked THE FUNERAL DRESS. In fact, I read the novel in less than a day which is saying something because I've been in a bit of a reading slump the past few weeks. Of course, Emmalee's story was heartbreaking at times and just about drove me to tears; however, it was also heartwarming -- demonstrating the strength of the human spirit. After I finished this novel, I was just happy to be a woman and grateful for the support of my female friendships.
One of the things that I most enjoyed about this novel was how the story was told. I mentioned earlier that this novel was about Emmalee, but that was only partially true. It was also the story of Emmalee's friend Leona. THE FUNERAL DRESS alternated between the two women's stories while also going back and forth between the present and the past. I can't say that I appreciated one woman's chapters more than the other; however, I did enjoy getting to know (and understand) Leona with the flashbacks. Having said that, I also really liked seeing how much Emmalee changed throughout the novel and how she eventually came to realize what was important in her life.
I could go on and on about the many things that made THE FUNERAL DRESS a wonderful read for me, but I think it's probably best for you to just experience this story on your own. While I certainly enjoyed the character development, the dialogue, the symbolism, the writing and more, I have to say that it was how this book made me feel that brought it to the next level for me. I truly appreciated that this book made me both happy and sad (and even a little mad), but I especially liked that it made me proud to be a woman and a mother.
You won't be surprised to find that I think THE FUNERAL DRESS would make an ideal book club selection. There is a reading guide available with eleven thought-provoking questions; however, I have to warn you that the publisher has some major spoilers in the questions, so read at your own risk! There are so many wonderful things to discuss in this story including class structure, prejudice, loss, grief, forgiveness, faith, mother/child relationships, friendships, betrayal, religion, and redemption. In addition, you can discuss some of the symbolism in the story including birds and the funeral dress.
Overall, I highly recommend THE FUNERAL DRESS to fans of Southern fiction and especially those of you who enjoy stories about the resilience of women and the importance of friendships.
Thanks to the author for providing a review copy of this novel.