This reading group guide for My Mrs. Brown includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author
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William Norwich. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
“Hasn’t every woman fallen in love with a dress?”
Emilia Brown is a hardworking widow who makes a modest living cleaning at Bonnie’s Beauty Salon in Ashville, Rhode Island. Quiet by nature, she has known her share of sorrows and persevered. When she offers to assist with the inventory of the estate of a local grande dame, Mrs. Brown discovers a dress that changes her life forever. It isn’t some frothy confection but rather a simple yet exquisitely tailored Oscar de la Renta black sheath and jacket. From the moment Mrs. Brown sees the dress, she is possessed by the desire to purchase one for herself.
Thus begins Mrs. Brown’s challenge to save enough money to be able to travel to New York City and buy the dress. She is helped by two wonderful women: Alice, her twenty-three-year-old next-door neighbor, and Rachel, the public relations executive who befriends her in New York. As Mrs. Brown navigates the path to her dress, the motivation for her quest unfolds, and the dignity and devotion of her deeply personal mission becomes clear.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “She was sixty-six years old, a widow; if she was a scent, she was tea with honey, but if she was a color, she was a study in gray.” How does this description of Mrs. Emilia Brown evoke her distinctive sense of fashion? What dictates Mrs. Brown’s stylistic choices, and how do they reflect her character?
2. How does the arrival of Alice Danvers, Emilia’s new next-door neighbor, change her everyday routine? How do their different personalities complement each other? What accounts for the unusual closeness of their bond? How does Alice’s presence enable Emilia to pursue her dream of owning the perfect dress?
3. Given the vast differences between them in terms of status, wealth, and influence, why does Emilia Brown feel a special kinship with Millicent Groton?
4. Describe the fictional village of Ashville, Rhode Island. What do the rituals of its citizens suggest about its character as a community? To what extent does Mrs. Brown’s journey from Ashville to New York City serve as a coming-of-age narrative, in which she sets out as an innocent country mouse who gains experience through her quest for her perfect dress in the city?
5. Describe the black Oscar de la Renta dress that Mrs. Brown admires in Millicent Groton’s closet. Why does Emilia respond to the dress with such intensity? To what extent does her decision to save up enough money to buy the same dress seem in keeping with her nature?
6. In her praise of Queen Elizabeth, Mrs. Groton’s former personal assistant, Rachel Ames, remarks on “everything she represents: decorum, civility, constraint, consistency, endurance, duty, service, faith, hope.” To what extent are these character traits values of an earlier time, and to what extent are they appreciated in contemporary culture? Why might these values appeal to Mrs. Brown? To what extent do they appeal to Rachel Ames?
7. How would you describe the employees at Bonnie’s Beauty Salon? Why are Hillie, Georgie, and Francie so dismissive of Mrs. Brown? How do their feelings compare to Bonnie’s? How does Mrs. Brown’s unwillingness to engage with their negativity relate to her religious beliefs?
8. “If God wants me to win the lottery, then one ticket would be enough. Buying more than one shows him that I lack faith, and without faith . . . no one is going to win anything except disappointment.” Discuss the various instances of divine intervention—or remarkably good fortune—that Mrs. Brown experiences on her way to acquiring her dress. Consider the roles of Rachel Ames, Florida Noble, and Oscar de la Renta.
9. Three of the young, unmarried women in the novel—Alice Danvers, Rachel Ames, and Florida Noble—think of Emilia Brown as “my
Mrs. Brown.” How does Mrs. Brown’s presence change their lives for the better? To what extent do their relationships with Mrs. Brown fall into a classic mother/daughter dynamic? How do her connections with these young women affect Mrs. Brown?
10. How does the conclusion of the novel, and the revelation of Mrs. Brown’s reason for wanting the dress, enable you to understand Emilia Brown’s character more fully?Enhance Your Book Club
1. The dress Mrs. Brown falls in love with isn’t the most glamorous, the sexiest, or even the most beautiful; she describes it as “a garment so regal . . . so exquisitely tailored and . . . thoroughly reassuring.” Members of your book club may want to share their experiences with clothes that have changed the way they think about themselves, or garments that have been otherwise transformative. Consider asking members of your club to describe a significant outfit they purchased for themselves or the most expensive they have ever purchased. Encourage your group to think about clothing they wore in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. They may want to consider if these garments carry the same sort of emotional resonance for them that Mrs. Brown’s dress does for her.
2. In My Mrs. Brown,
a series of celebrities excites adulation: Millicent Groton fascinates and awes Mrs. Brown; all Ashville goes into a frenzy over the presence of supermodel Florida Noble; and Oscar de la Renta is an international fashion icon who demonstrates extraordinary kindness toward Mrs. Brown. Have members of your group discuss the phenomenon of celebrity culture. Why do so many people revere celebrities and aspire to be like them? Members of your group may want to discuss the phenomenon of celebrity gossip magazines, and how paparazzi, reality television, and social media have altered the cultural landscape on what sorts of private information is fair game for public consumption. Members of your group may want to consider the intersection of fashion and celebrity in My Mrs. Brown
, and examine how those two themes affect their own fashion choices and lives.
3. Members of your group may want to celebrate some of the themes of My Mrs. Brown
by wearing a favorite dress to your next gathering. An impromptu fashion show complete with the typical red-carpet question “Who are you wearing?” might be a fun way to open a dialogue with your club members about how they choose what to wear, if there are particular designers they find themselves drawn to, and whether or not they agree with an observation from the novel: “What you wear is your container.”A Conversation with William NorwichAs a journalist who has covered the fashion industry for decades, you are intimately acquainted with the dynamics of its evanescent, high-intensity, flashy culture. How did you decide to focus your narrative on Emilia Brown, who embodies the opposite of fashion in many respects?
At first, it was purely a matter of “what if.” By which I mean, the idea for Emilia Brown came to me when, almost seven years ago now, I read Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel Mrs. ’Arris Goes to Paris
for the first time. I found it in a secondhand bookshop. Mrs. ’Arris is a London charwoman. It’s the years after World War II, the deprivations and rationings of London during the war are ended, and the sight of anything colorful is a revelation. The revelation in Mrs. ’Arris’s case is this exquisite bouquet in the form of a Christian Dior couture evening dress, “an explosion in crimson satin and taffeta,” that she sees in the wardrobe of someone she cleans for. Mrs. ’Arris decides that somehow, someway she will have just such a dress for herself. She journeys to Paris, to Dior. I loved the story and I kept thinking, if that was now, and Mrs. ’Arris lived in America today, what would that dress be, what style? It came to me. It would be the antithesis of the red-carpet Cinderella dresses we see at awards ceremonies, black-tie galas, and on Real Housewives
television shows. It would be a suit. It would be the experience of fine tailoring. It would be something that a woman of Mrs. Brown’s means and circumstances could wear in a boardroom—the opposite of party dressing, and the relief from Cinderella clothing. And so Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Brown’s dress took hold in my imagination. I know it sounds corny, but soon after all this came to my mind, the character of Mrs. Brown came and filled my heart. Working at night and on weekends, I sat down to write and she came through and she told her story, which is the story you read in the novel My Mrs. Brown.
I debated who the designer of Mrs. Brown’s dress suit would be. I considered several, but very soon it became clear to me there was only one choice and that was Oscar de la Renta. Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Walters, and Brooke Astor all owned dress suits very similar to the one Mrs. Brown would seek and they were tailored by Oscar de la Renta.Mrs. Brown has suffered loss in her life—the death of her alcoholic husband, the untimely death of her son, the casual cruelty of her coworkers and others who think she is unworthy of their respect and attention. To what extent did you want her to be an Everywoman of sorts?
I very much wanted Mrs. Brown to be an Everywoman. I also wanted her to express that part of every person who struggles to keep to the high road, who suffers loss; who has been bullied by people; known sadness, depression, disappointment, and grief; and has been worn down by lack of money, and nonetheless, somehow, someway carried on with dignity. Not just keeping their faith but in the process increasing their faith, whether their belief is in a religious god or in a secular, universal goodness. And it’s not easy. Not easy at all, is it? But for people who do, keeping the faith is the source of their true self-esteem and inspires their belief in kindness and courtesy as the way to live and the way to meet every challenge.As a man, at any point did you feel intimidated by the prospect of writing a book centered on the emotional significance of a special dress for a woman?
Yes. A lot of the time I felt, How dare I? But I prayed that I was representing and re-creating what I’d observed over the years. It’s one of the blessings of being a writer. If you keep your ears open, you learn from the people you write about and when it is time to tell their story, you become their channel. I’ve written about clothing and grooming and style and making a home for oneself and one’s family for a lot of years now and for a lot of publications. As a result, I’ve had a lot of feedback from women. I tried to access that when I was writing My Mrs. Brown.Do you think there is a corresponding garment that carries special significance for men as dresses do for women? If so, what would it be?
Not exactly but close. I don’t think men suffer the same amount of propaganda that women do about what they should wear and how they should look and how they should stay young. But for men, the corresponding garment would also be a well-tailored suit. Pulling one inward and upward.How did you decide to select Oscar de la Renta’s dress as the specific garment that appeals to Mrs. Brown? Could it have been a dress by any other designer? Why or why not?
I debated whether I should cite a real designer or create a fictional label. Fashion being fashion, styles change and I worried that if someone went to buy Mrs. Brown’s dress, it wouldn’t exist, not exactly as described. And I didn’t want anyone to think I wrote this book in any way shape or form as a commission from a designer. (The Oscar de la Renta people read the book only when it was completed, and we do not have any financial relationship.) I knew the designer had to be American—because Mrs. Brown wasn’t going to go to Paris, she was going to come to New York, the most industrious city in the world as opposed to the most romantic. She could have shopped at Chanel in New York, where they always have wonderful dress suits, or also at Versace, which may surprise some people who think of the label as being only va-voom. I thought of Michael Kors for a while. First Lady Michelle Obama wore one of Michael’s fitted black dresses in her first official White House photograph. But I realized there was only one designer for Mrs. Brown, and it was Oscar de la Renta.The friendships Mrs. Brown develops with Alice, Florida, and Rachel are unexpected in part because of their differences in age, temperament, and interests. To what extent did you intend a maternal dimension to Mrs. Brown’s connections with these younger women?
I didn’t want her to mother them as much as I wanted the younger women to connect to the maternal in Mrs. Brown and then relate to those maternal qualities in themselves. To identify with and to see that they, too, shared the spirit of kindness, courtesy, patience, strength, courage, and hope that Mrs. Brown is so rich in—Mrs. Brown’s wealth if you will. I wanted Mrs. Brown to be an aspirational figure for the younger women. And when each of these women identifies her as such, it’s a sign of maturity and sensitivity in their own character. Seeing beyond surfaces.Why did you decide to make Mrs. Brown’s experiences and encounters on her journey to New York City culminate in a perfect day of sorts?
Because there are so few perfect days, and as Mrs. Brown filled my heart, and the better I got to know her, as her story started to come through clearly to me, it was my prayer for her that she have a perfect day with all the blessings and kindness she deserved.
Who do you envision as the ideal reader of your novel and why?
Anyone who would enjoy a story where kindness and courtesy are the solution to all their problems. And women who are fed up with not finding anything they can really wear when they go shopping for new clothes. And even a third category—I hope there will be men who read My Mrs. Brown
and will enjoy getting to know her and maybe, as a result, have a better understanding of the women in their lives.You chose to leave the motivation for Emilia Brown’s purchase of her dress until the conclusion of the novel. Why did you decide to leave this revelation for the end of the book?
I thought that some readers would be surprised by this reveal at the end, and I know as a reader I like a surprise at the end. I also thought that maybe some people might pick up on the few hints in the story along the way, and they wouldn’t want to have their guessing ended too soon. And because, for Mrs. Brown even after she gets her dress, it takes a few months before she is ready to wear it.Is there an actual dress that you used as your inspiration for Mrs. Brown’s dress? What advice would you give to readers who long to find “correct” dresses for themselves, but don’t have the means or access to haute couture?
A. Whether it was my mother back in the day; the images of Jacqueline Kennedy in the black dress suit she wore to mourn President Kennedy; the sophisticated president of a college I attended who wore her black dress suit with a sable stole and a gold charm bracelet so you could hear her coming, announcing her arrival before she actually got there; all the first ladies; Brooke Astor, Queen Elizabeth . . . there’s that black dress suit they all have owned and worn when the occasion required elegance and correctness. Not so much one dress I could put on a mannequin as much as one style that’s never gone out of style, the dress suit, this uniform of perfection—suit up and show up. And what advice for the women who don’t have the means or access to haute couture but who long for a dress as correct as Mrs. Brown’s? I think buying something “gently worn” is great or buying something akin to Mrs. Brown’s dress and bringing it to a tailor to be enhanced and reinforced is a very good option. The trick to buying something off-the-rack and moderately priced is to buy it in a size that isn’t too tight. Something tight fitting will show the compromises of fabrications of any garment, whereas a loser fit will be more forgiving. Even if you don’t see clothing by these labels in the editorial pages of the fashion magazines, or extolled on fashion websites and blogs, or worn on red carpets, great clothes exist at decent prices. Mrs. Brown’s dress isn’t a call to shopping, that’s not my intention. It’s a metaphor for a mission. Sometimes a dress isn’t just a dress.The novel discusses the idea that style is an intervention. What does that mean?
The short answer is: “feeling blue, wear red,” which was the philosophy of a fashion designer named Pauline Trigère. Ms. Trigère brought the house down at a fashion industry awards ceremony about twenty years ago when she accepted her lifetime achievement award by offering the audience that advice. My whole childhood my mother struggled with health challenges. Even if she shopped, there was very little chance she might actually get to wear the new clothes. But the conversation, the looking in the newspapers and the magazines at new fashions, maybe sometimes a new perfume, or lipstick, or getting her hair done, lifted her spirits. It was an intervention, a healthful, hopeful one.