Sunday, July 20, 2014

'The Hatmaker's Heart' by Carla Stewart

The Hatmaker's Heart For Nell Marchwold, bliss is seeing the transformation when someone gets a glimpse in the mirror while wearing one of her creations and feels beautiful. Nell has always strived to create hats that bring out a woman's best qualities. She knows she's fortunate to have landed a job as an apprentice designer at the prominent Oscar Fields Millinery in New York City. Yet when Nell's fresh designs begin to catch on, her boss holds her back from the limelight, claiming the stutter she's had since childhood reflects poorly on her and his salon.
But it seems Nell's gift won't be hidden by Oscar's efforts. Soon an up-and-coming fashion designer is seeking her out as a partner of his 1922 collection. The publicity leads to an opportunity for Nell to make hats in London for a royal wedding. There, she sees her childhood friend, Quentin, and an unexpected spark kindles between them. But thanks to her success, Oscar is determined to keep her. As her heart tugs in two directions, Nell must decide what she is willing to sacrifice for her dream, and what her dream truly is.


Nell Marchwold is a talented hat designer who works for Oscar Fields, a prestigious milliner in New York. Her mission has always been to bring out the inner beauty in every woman, delighting some who may have felt plain their whole life. Yet giving her dream the priority it seemed to deserve meant that many sacrifices were required, the biggest of which seemed to be having to kowtow to a selfish and demanding employer ( a 'schmuck' as her fellow worker Calvin calls him). She ends up forced to ask herself whether recognition at the top of her field is the same as happiness.

Nell's boss, Oscar Fields, is the sort of character we're torn between hating and feeling sorry for. He bosses his staff around, blackmails them, arranges their lives, regards them as possessions, forces them to work 60 hour weeks and never gives them credit unless it puts him in a good light. Yet how exhausting to be him, such a control freak that even his staff must be seen as extensions of himself. You can't read this book without waiting for him to either crack or fall flat on his face.

The story has a gentle mystery, as Nell visits the flamboyant Dr Terrence Underwood, who gives her drawing exercises to try to get to the bottom of why she stammers when nervous. There is plenty of pressure on her to figure it out, as Oscar finds her a liability who shouldn't open her mouth around VIPs until she's cured. 

Oscar, Nell and some of the other staff have the opportunity to set up shop in London for several weeks, to design hats for noble folk who plan to attend the royal wedding of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Prince Albert (who also had a stutter like Nell, come to think of it). This part of the story was great. I was alive for the royal weddings of Charles and Di and Will and Kate, so appreciated having this glimpse into the wedding of 1923 too.

Although there are romantic moments, this story isn't really a romance, which I feel it fair to tell people who are looking for one. It's more about the sagas of working life. In fact, I was far more interested in Calvin, Nell's fellow apprentice, than Quentin, the boy she left her heart with in England. This isn't because Quentin isn't likeable, but simply because we see far more of Calvin and get to know him better. He was probably one of my favourite characters.

I'm glad I read this book, as there is so much food for thought, concerning our motivations for the work we do, and when a God-given dream crosses the line into personal gratification, which may then lead to being driven and losing your sense of joy. The 1920s milliner shop setting really brings that home. Oscar, Nell and the other staff were practically running themselves ragged to make good impressions, as fashion was their whole world, yet now, about ninety years later, it is no longer obligatory for every citizen to wear a hat as part of our daily attire. All that stress for them is simply a whimsical memory of times long ago for us.

Thanks to Net Galley and  FaithWords for a review copy.

4 stars

The Hatmaker's Heart: A Novel available from Amazon

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