Just before Christmas, I was contacted by author Isabel Wolff, to tell me that her new novel “A Vintage Affair” was set in Blackheath. She asked if I would like to receive a copy to review. I said I’d love to, but have only just got around to reading it. I should start by saying that the Bugle is a man, a bit of a geek, who usually loves sci-fi, so possibly not the target audience, judging from the cover. However, I didn’t let that put me off, and I’m glad (although I will admit to hiding the cover behind a copy of The Metro whilst sitting on the train from Blackheath to Charing Cross). Why can’t books have neutral covers? I hate the fact that I am directed to a book on the basis of machismo, or equally supposed to discount it as it has a picture of a pink frock on the front!
Anyway, onto the book – the blurb sums it up well:
It is about a textiles expert, Phoebe Swift, who opens a vintage dress shop, ‘Village Vintage’, in Blackheath. One day she goes to visit an elderly French woman, Therese, who lives in The Paragon, and who has a collection of lovely clothes that she wishes to sell to Phoebe. But there is one garment that she won’t part with – a child’s blue winter coat from the 1940s. As Phoebe uncovers the mystery surrounding this little coat, and the child for whom it was destined, she realises that her own life is is to be changed forever.
It is certainly romantic fiction, but is written in a very readable and enjoyable style, almost like a thriller, except that the primary aim is not to guess “whodunnit”, but “whichmanisprincecharming”, and “willtherebeahappyending?” It’s the sort of book that you can virtually swallow whole – definitely a page-turner, and doesn’t require much effort on the part of the reader.
The book feels as though it has been written by someone who is very intelligent, and has researched their subjects thoroughly, but is now writing about those subjects to appeal to a wide audience.
Nearly all of the female relationships in the book are firm and honest – and the friendships are struck up quickly and easily. It also contains that soap-opera fantasy whereby friends and neighbours’ doors are always ajar, and people always pop in – think Ambridge rather than London.
The vintage clothes are used as a metaphor for previously lived lives, the main sentiment in the book is that these possessions are somehow endowed with the emotions of their owners. The book made me feel as though I should pay more attention to the clothes I wear, and not just stagger around in any old thing. I’ve always been slightly suspicious of fashion as an extension of greed, rather than an expression of yourself or of art, but this book definitely puts a positive spin on how clothes can improve a person.
The characters are easy to grasp, and enjoyable, possibly with the exception of the bizarre shop assistant Annie, who, when she’s not auditioning for local rep, is making strange comments about “souks” (p193) and “Grace Jones” (p210)… But apart from this, the more emotional scenes dealing with loss, melancholy, and regret are warm and effective.
The book is crammed full of Blackheath. Many of the books mentioned on this blog previously have only made passing mention of the place, whereas virtually all of the action in “A Vintage Affair” takes place squarely within the village, with occasional soujourns to Greenwich (the view from the Picturehouse bar becomes far more picturesque than the usual view of the barbers that I recall). Everybody seems well-off enough not to worry too much about money – and Blackheath feels a little like a fantasy land from a bygone era. Of course there are also a couple of trips to some vineyards, some romping in grand houses, and up the OXO tower, but those are par for the course, yes?
A few notes about the locations:
Village Vintage – the shop at the centre of the novel. From the description, I imagine it being where Raffles the clothes shop is (opposite the church, see above left). However, “Sisters & Daughters” near the station seems quite a nice fit too (see above right).
Cafe Amici - I couldn’t help noticing in the author’s bio that she used to be a BBC World Service producer… Which made the inclusion of Cafe Amici (right opposite Bush House in real life) an amusing easter-egg.
Costcutters p243-244- schoolgirls, going to the same high-school prom, being held at the Natural History Museum, as the millionaire’s daughter, dreaming about buying a £245 pound dress, currently working in CostCutters on a Saturday for £45 a shift.
Clarendon Hotel p223- Does not get a very flattering write-up (perhaps justifiably) – Phoebe’s non-wedding reception, probably a lucky escape?
Bennett Street- Clearly based upon Bennett Park, next to the station
All Saints Church – mostly walked past, or bonging in the background
The Paragon – where Mrs Bell lives.
Moon Daisy Cafe – frequent meeting place – possibly based upon Montpelier Coffee Shop?
Chapters All Day Dining p377 – Dan and Phoebe go there to toast Dan’s success.
Blackheath Concert Halls – Possible location for a fashion show? p382
Black & Green – Nice name for the local freesheet newspaper that Dan works for… Not sure that any local papers around here quite manage to cover the Social Whirl so effectively though! Poetic license, I guess. p206
Author Isabel Wolff interviewed about the book here:
You can read the first two chapters here, to find out if it is your sort of book. On balance, I really enjoyed it, which surprised me!
Not all the photos were taken by me. Click on them to go to the respecitve author’s Flickr page.