Hello, dear friends. It’s time for another “different kind of book review.” The novel I chose is Silk for the Feed Dogs by Jackie Mallon. You might already know Jackie through her blog at https://jackiemallon.com/ And if you don’t, I suggest that you make your way over there now and have a look around. I’ll wait.
Jackie writes about fashion and most of her posts now link to FashionUnited. Jackie has such a wonderful way with words that even if I don’t have a clue about the designer or design she is writing about, I still enjoy reading her posts. And I always learn something. Much as I felt upon reading her novel. So, without further ado, a different kind of book review …
Maggie pulled open the little drawers of the antique Singer sewing machine. They were full of bobbins and feet for every possible stitch. The apparatus for the zig-zag stitch was in its own plastic green box. The machine had been her mother’s, handed down by her maternal grandmother. Maggie’s mom had sewn most of her clothes when she was little, the machine humming through the day, somewhat like the “whirr of the Singer, which was neurotic, and monotonous” that Kat’s mom had used.
Maggie had finished reading Silk for the Feed Dogs by Jackie Mallon and felt obliged to reacquaint herself with her sewing machine, if not sewing itself. Maggie was a knitter, not a seamstress, and she was reconciled to that, although … .
Mallon’s novel about a young Irish woman named Kat who goes from an Irish dairy farm to a high fashion house in Milan reminded Maggie that once upon a time she had fancied finding herself in fashion. Like Kat, she had had an eclectic but creative edge with the clothes she made for herself: flowing kimono-style blouses made of gold curtain material; squares of old lace handkerchiefs stitched together for short summer skirts. Unlike Kat, she couldn’t draw to save her life. And then she got painful bruises from the knee press of the old Singer. Finally, she picked up a ball of yarn and two knitting needles and never looked back.
“But, Kat, oh, what a character!” Maggie’s cousins had barely sat down at the kitchen table when she started talking about Silk for the Feed Dogs the night before, her selection for that month’s book club. Melissa and Mary were in attendance, but Randy was AWOL, which was okay with Maggie since she knew Mary’s fiance wasn’t really interested in reading about the escapades of a young fashion designer in Italy.
Melissa held a lemon mini-scone in one hand and pulled the book toward her with the other. “I do like this cover. It’s almost like a collage, and don’t you have an old sewing machine like that?”
“Except mine has a knee press instead of a treadle. That’s one of the reasons why I chose this novel. Just from the cover you can tell this will be an intriguing story. Why is this young woman asleep at an oversized sewing machine with fabric covering her almost like a quilt?”
“I was hooked from the first line,” Mary interjected as she pulled the book away from Melissa and flipped through the pages. “Ahem … ‘I heard the engine of the old red Massey Ferguson fart into life and I emerged running, scrambling to get my wellies on.’ This is how we meet Kat, on her family’s farm, about to help her ‘Da’ with birthing a calf. Her mom gets a sewing machine that Kat wants no part of and yet she winds up going to a London art school for fashion design.”
“And at a young age, too, which suggests to me that she had a calling, a real drive to pursue fashion as a career.” Maggie suddenly felt wistful. What was it like to have that kind of drive when you were only in your teens?
“The juxtaposition between where she came from and where she went is profound, but …” Melissa paused to take a sip of her hot tea. Maggie and Mary waited, albeit a tad impatiently. “But, it was too fast for me. Literally from the first chapter to the second with no idea as to why she flipped from wanting no part of her mom’s sewing machine to being almost obsessed by clothing and fashion.”
“Well, I felt that way too at first, but …” Maggie paused to take a sip of her tea and then a bite of her scone. Melissa raised her eyebrows. “But, she does weave bits of her childhood life into the novel and she has phone conversations with her mom throughout. I got the sense that she was a headstrong young girl who was pretty much encouraged to do anything she wanted. Yet, her family eked by. Remember, she could only have one cat when she was growing up because they couldn’t afford to feed more. But sewing was a part of her mother’s life and I think Kat just inherited that gene, even if she fought against at first.”
“I agree, Maggie. She presents the question, how did she go from this to that, but …” Mary paused and took a sip of her tea and then just stared at the few remaining scones as if trying to decide whether she wanted another. Maggie stifled a laugh and Melissa rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. Mary looked away from the scones. “But she lets the reader figure it out by weaving, as you say, bits of her childhood into the narrative. This novel is about her adventures in the fashion world. Perhaps there will be another novel about her childhood.”
“Oh, that would be wonderful!” Maggie leaned forward, apparently finished with teasing Melissa. “This was such an entertaining novel. Mallon is an exceptional writer, don’t you think. Listen to this.” Maggie took the book and flipped to a dogeared page.
‘Fields with low-growing crops were crinkly like raffia, those mowed smooth were like cashmere, and one farm of land was so raked and tailored right to its sharp corners defined by trim hedgerows that it reminded me of a Max Mara wool crombie with fur collar that I’d admired recently in a magazine.’
Melissa nodded. “From that passage you definitely get the idea that fashion is in Kat’s blood. I don’t even know what a Max Mara wool crombie is … .”
“Right, I had to look some of that up,” Maggie interrupted. “But that’s fine because I’m not a fashion designer, not even into fashion, not any more anyway.”
“And while there is a lot about fashion in this novel, the characters practically pop off the page: Kat herself; Edward, her gay friend who entices her to Milan; Lynda, the crazy fake designer in London and her codependent assistant Celeste; Signora Silvia, Eva, Paola, and Arturo, and all the Italian men who tried to seduce her–”
“With some succeeding,” Melissa interjected with a grin.
“Yes, if it weren’t for Randy, I’d probably would have booked a trip to Italy after reading Silk.”
The cousins went silent for a few moments, each contemplating their misspent youth in a small town in northern New York state where Italian men were nil.
Maggie jerked herself out of her reverie. “And then she gets this amazing assignment at the House of Adriani, the top fashion house. I never knew how hard people had to work at these places and how you have to keep checking your back for knives. She achieves her dream and then, well, it’s interesting what she does then.”
“Yes.” Mary sat back in her chair, the mood in the kitchen suddenly somber. “I came away from this novel with a deep respect for Kat. She doesn’t always show good judgement, but who does and, besides, what kind of story would it be if she did. But she had a moral code that she wasn’t going to compromise for anyone. And you feel that it was a code she was raised with, instilled by her father and mother. Her loyalties are put to the test a number of times, but she has integrity and a strong sense of fairness. She understands how the fashion world works. She just has to decide if she could work within such a system.”
Maggie gave a soft laugh. “If it had been me, they would have chewed me up and spit me out the first day, if I ever even got that far.” She looked up to see both Melissa and Mary frowning at her. “When I was in junior high, I wanted to be a fashion designer. But I can’t draw and my imagination only went so far. I definitely didn’t have the focus or skill set that Kat has. Still, it was a fantasy and that’s one of the things I enjoyed about this novel. For the time it took to read it, I could vicariously enjoy a world that I know I will never be part of it.”
“And isn’t that why we read novels?” Melissa poured some tea into Maggie’s cup.
“Isn’t that why we read at all?” Mary reached for the plate of scones. She’d take the last cinnamon scone.