The Dressmaker’s War

Written by Mary Chamberlain
Review by Monica E. Spence

1939. At nineteen years old, Ada Vaughan has English working-class roots and a stellar talent in dressmaking. Her dream of owning her own atelier and rubbing elbows with the wealthy pushes her to Paris with Stanislaus, her titled Austrian lover, at the brink of World War II.

Abandoned by Stanislaus, she is trapped by the Nazis as they sweep into Paris. She is taken prisoner, sent to a concentration camp, and forced to work in demeaning jobs until her dressmaking talent is discovered. Alone, and fighting against the threat of cruelty and death at every turn, Ada makes decisions that will haunt her at the end of the war. For once the war is over, the terror lies not only in the nightmarish past, but also in how she will be judged by men who have never been tortured, starved, or sexually abused, or who never had to make life-and-death decisions to survive.

Mary Chamberlain’s haunting and poignant debut work of fiction is one readers will carry with them for years to come. As a teacher of fashion and a skilled dressmaker, I could identify with teenage Ada’s aspirations and dreams for a better life. But war is a brutal teacher, and dreams are discarded out of necessity, no matter how skilled or talented one is. The decisions Ada has to make are decisions based on survival. The judgments rendered against her are based on pre-war standards and attitudes, not the reality and sadism of the brutal Nazi regime. Very highly recommended.