Review: The Dictatorship of the Dress by Jessica Topper

Posted: July 25, 2015 in Reviews
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I don’t cry. I’m told it’s because of the trauma I’ve faced so far in life. Personally, I think it’s because I found a better outlet, one that doesn’t leave me with puffy, red eyes and ruined contacts.

So, yeah, I was mortified when I got to that scene in Jessica Topper’s The Dictatorship of the Dress and tears were streaming down my face. It wouldn’t have been so bad except I was sitting in a waiting room at the time. I had to put the book down and read some women’s magazine before the tears would stop.

I don’t routinely read women’s magazines.

Jessica Topper—who has become a friend of mine, our bond forged in rock and roll and its first cousin, Rock Fiction—can write. With a pointedness, a poignancy, a realness, and an honesty that takes my breath away. Which is exactly how I came to be sitting in a waiting room, bawling.

I take solace in the fact I wasn’t sobbing. I suspect if I’d been home alone, I might have been.

So. The story leading up to this point seems simple: Laney Hudson is taking her mother’s wedding dress to Hawaii. Her mother’s already there. The groom’s already there. The bridal party is already there and texting her pictures of their toes at the beach and by the pool. In short: it’s all set except for Laney and the dress.

Her mother doubts that Laney can accomplish this simple task, and in a homily to Jewish mothers everywhere, she lets Laney know it. As a result, Laney feels like the family fuck-up even though she’s had this amazing life until now. Still, she can’t see the good. Too much trauma.

I can relate.

Noah’s also got an amazing life, but he’s trapped, engaged to the boss’ daughter. He should be set for life, living the dream, and he is, but … he feels shunted aside. Something doesn’t feel right, and he’s not sure what it is. But she’s the boss’ daughter… and his life is good, right?

These two wind up sitting next to each other in an airplane bound for Chicago. Even before their connecting flights are cancelled due to a snowstorm, their situation has become like the proverbial snowball barreling down a hill.

It’s how lighthearted this novel is, despite its serious points, that makes it such a poignant read. Noah makes a nest in the Jacuzzi tub when he and Laney have to share a hotel room. Laney wears Noah’s Converse shoes when she realizes throwing away the boots with the broken heel wasn’t such a smart move.

But there’s a deep point to all this. Throwing those precious boots away when they no longer function is the start of Laney’s facing her past and the things she’s lost – and the things she can’t let go of. Noah makes due in the sort of luxury he should be enjoying properly. But maybe Noah and proper aren’t meant to be.

And then there’s the elephant in the room. Allen Burnside, the tour de force who used to oppose Laney’s mother in the battle over Laney’s soul. Allen had wanted to set her free, she was convinced of it, until he up and died, breaking their engagement before he did so because, as he said, she would make a lousy widow.

How can Noah compete? He’s Allen’s opposite… or is he? As the snowball that is the Noah and Laney Chronicles gains momentum, each layer of snow gathering on that ball is really the stripping away of layers of self-preservation, self-deception, and the growing self-awareness that lets both Laney and Noah move forward in life.

They learn, they grow, they risk it all.

I dare you not to cry.

So one question left: Topper is one of my favorite Rock Fiction authors after her amazing debut, Louder than Love. Neither Laney nor Noah are rockers… why am I even bringing up the question of Rock Fiction?

Let’s revisit Allen Burnside. Drummer for Three on a Match, one of the best band names I’ve encountered recently. It’s got a ring to it, a rhythm. Go on, say it out loud. Feel how it rolls off the tongue. It really is a shame this band doesn’t get more time on the page, but Topper’s no slouch. If there’s a story, she’ll tell it. Or she’ll answer to me.

But back to Allen Burnside. Allen, who is the ultimate rocker in that he takes over and dominates the story. There is no Laney and Noah without Allen there, overshadowing things, looming over it all. He’s pulling the puppet strings; there’s no doubt about it. So yeah, Dictatorship of the Dress becomes Rock Fiction. Rock and Roll will never die, right?

Right.

Allen’s got a friend, too. A Scary one, and he’s the reason for my tears. I’ll let you discover what that means, exactly. Keep the tissues handy, as this is one of the rawest, most poignant scenes I’ve ever read. It’s also really the penultimate scene in the book even though so much happens after it. It’s not a climax in the traditional sense of a climax in a story, and it’s good that Topper’s not afraid to push the boundaries. You could even argue that the plot’s climax happens later, but this scene is definitely The Moment for Laney on her emotional journey.

Aww, just go pick up a copy. Yes, the situation with Noah’s life is a bit too pat, but … hey, you can’t get every single element right, can you? Besides, the way he handles the fallout from the choices he makes shows real class. Laney’s mother is going to love this boy. Even his Italian side. What is it with Italians and Jews, anyway?

Pick up a copy. Keep the tissues handy and take your contacts out. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Thanks to Jessica for putting a copy aside for me. What an incredible read.

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