Book Review: A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff

This book was really sweet. Though there were no intensely dramatic moments, the book captured by emotions and kept me reading.

4/5 stars

cover a vintage affair

Amazon description

Phoebe Swift’s friends are stunned when she abruptly leaves a plum job to open her own vintage clothing shop in London—but to Phoebe, it’s the fulfillment of a dream, and her passion. Digging for finds in attics and wardrobes, Phoebe knows that when you buy a piece of vintage clothing, you’re not just buying fabric and thread—you’re buying a piece of someone’s past. But one particular article of clothing will soon unexpectedly change her life.

Thérèse Bell, an elderly Frenchwoman, has an impressive clothing collection. But among the array of elegant suits and couture gowns, Phoebe finds a child’s sky-blue coat—an item with which Mrs. Bell is stubbornly reluctant to part. As the two women become friends, Phoebe will learn the poignant tale of that little blue coat. And she will discover an astonishing connection between herself and Thérèse Bell—one that will help her heal the pain of her own past and allow her to love again.

My review

Obviously, this isn’t the kind of YA fantasy/contemporary book that I usually read. It was a Christmas gift, and while I liked the premise, it took me a few months to get around to reading it.

I’m so glad I finally read it.

It is a bittersweet book to be sure. Phoebe is a struggling protagonist. Right before the book starts, she experiences a great trauma which shakes every aspect of her life (and which the reader slowly learns the truth of). Wolff started the book at the right moment: Phoebe has taken just enough steps past the experience to be more than the trauma–making her more interesting to read about than if she were still fully in the throws of the loss.

Voice-wise, Phoebe is nothing special. I connected to her, though mostly through empathizing with the situations she found herself shoved into rather than a strong sense of character. Still, she was the right lens to tell the story through, and her simple voice was able to convey the story well.

I don’t think the description Amazon gives (the same one that was on the back of my paper copy) does a good job of conveying what this book is about. Yes, Phoebe opens her own vintage clothing shop, and that drives the story forward. I liked the vintage clothes element; it struck me as unique, and I genuinely learned a lot. The book felt well-researched, and Phoebe came off as an expert in vintage clothes–a necessity for the believability of the book.

The next major plot line is the one surround Mrs. Bell and her blue coat. This was the emotional center of the book, and of all the emotional moments of the book, the scenes when we learned about the history of the coat were the ones that made me tear up. I liked the historical fiction element this drew into an overall modern story. Mrs. Bell’s character felt alive and I thought she presented the perfect guidance for Phoebe without sounding preachy or heavy-handed with her life lessons.

However, there was a lot more to the book than the two plot lines the description mentions. Phoebe’s relationship with her parents plays a large role in the story. (I especially loved the running line surrounding her mother’s search for anti-aging procedures.) There is also a love triangle involved, though I hate to call it that. It honestly doesn’t feel like a love triangle, and there isn’t any annoying flopping back and forth between the guys in her life. The romance was simple but added to the story. Finally, there are assorted scenes dealing with the horrible thing that happened before the book starts. The resolution of this plot line was the most satisfying for me, giving me the sense that Phoebe had genuinely grown throughout the story.

When I started reading this book, the number of plots and subplots bothered me. The book seemed to lack focus. However, by the end, I was glad that the book didn’t focus too much on any plot line and that Wolff was willing to let sub plots branch out and evolve throughout the story. This book feels like a life–not just a snapshot of one portion of a life, an entire life. The focus of the book is Phoebe (not a particular plot), and as a reader who loves characters over plot, this story-telling style worked really well.

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