Susan Coll

Book Review
The New York Times
A Love Letter to Old-Fashioned Department Stores

They sell frocks at F. G. Goode’s, these women in black, and when they arrive for work they don rayon crepe dresses that smell of frequent dry cleaning, cheap talcum powder and sweat. Do not confuse the Ladies’ Cocktail Frocks Department, where some of them work, with Day Frocks or Evening Frocks or exclusive Model Gowns. The last carries one-of-a-kind dresses, which means you won’t run into someone wearing the same thing unless she bought it in Melbourne. But “who goes to Melbourne?”

Department store particulars are part of the charm of Madeleine St. John’s “The Women in Black,” a deceptively smart comic gem that tracks four women through the pandemonium of one holiday season in 1950s Sydney. St. John, who died in 2006, was the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for a later novel, “The Essence of the Thing”), and though the plotlines here are somewhat reductive — marriage, dating and dresses are the characters’ central preoccupations — the book is laced with a fierce intelligence that captures the limited options for women and postwar xenophobic views.

It’s also a love letter to department stores of yore, and to the operatic flow of trade. “It was a wonderful spectacle,” Mr. Ryder, the floor manager, observes, looking out onto the Goode’s sales floor. “All of human life is here.”

Read the full article at The New York Times

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