My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There is something rather lovely about Streatfeild’s England. Every village has a family full of a thousand siblings. There are sensible and yet approachable adult folk. There is always a girl who is earnestly in love with ballet who ends up being recruited to train with the local (there is always one present) ballet teacher who just happens to spot purposeful talent in the girl. There is sunshine. There are sibling dynamics full of love and fun and heart. There is loveliness. (If you would like a game for this review, you can count up how many times I say things are lovely…)
Selina in Party Shoes has received a frock. The problem is that as it’s wartime, the opportunities for her to wear this frock are very limited. To be frank, it’s not going to happen and so the cousins with whom Selina is lodging (due to her parents being abroad), put their head together to make a plan. And that plan is this. They will hold a pageant in the grounds of the local Abbey and that Selina will be able to wear her frock at that.
It’s a lovely and ridiculous book this, and it’s easy to think that it’s solely ridiculous with the benefit of reading this in todays age. The plot itself is glorious; we’ll hold a pageant, here’s how we plan the pageant, whoops here’s the pageant, all’s good, bye. And to be frank there are moments of planning which drag a little only to be resolved in that blithe booky fashion which never seems to happen in real life.
That’s one way of reading it, but I’d argue that there’s another. The thing is this plot comes from real life. Not the pageant-y part of it, but the aching need to wear a dress at the right occasion before one grows out of it. Streatfeild’s niece, Nicolette, received a dress during the war and the occasion never presented itself for the dress to be worn. As Streatfeild explains during the introduction to my edition, everyone began to wonder would the occasion ever present itself and if it did would it be too late? Would Nicolette have grown too much and would the dress fit?
Now, the inability to do something in an everyday context is annoying and troublesome as it is, but the inability to do something as simple as have an occasion fit for a pretty dress in the middle of wartime must have been something else. And there’s something lovely, heartbreaking and beautiful about the way the entire community bands together to achieve this, even if they almost forget what they’re doing it for in the process, even if they’re almost banding together to create something beautiful and positive and a memory to hold against all the sadness and trauma that they have lived through.
So yes, Party Shoes (also known as Party Frock) is ridiculous.
But it’s also something very much more than that.