The Seamstress by María Dueñas

Oh Sira!

I do wish you could have met my grandmother – my father’s mother that is.

You were of the same generation and though she had a much quieter life than you, happy with her home, her family, her church, in a Cornish fishing village, you had one important thing in common. You were both brought up by seamstresses and able, where necessary, to earn you own living as your mothers had.

My grandmother would have loved your book. She liked her novels big – and looked with disdain at anything under five hundred pages – she liked strong characters, high drama, rich emotions, evocative settings … You provided all of that, in more than six hundred pages.

Yes, she would have loved it; her granddaughter rather liked it and, though she had a few reservations, she raced through your story, reading in chunks over an extended period because it isn’t always practical to carry around a book the size of a housebrick.

It is very much to your credit that your story stuck, even when I was reading smaller, more portable books.

Your future seemed mapped out at the beginning. Your mother had raised you alone, and she had done well. You were a very competent seamstress and you were engaged to a sensible, hard-working young man. But two things changed all of that.

You met your father for the first time, and he was able to offer you a great deal for your future. And you met a charming young man. I could see that he was trouble, but you couldn’t. I understood that; you were young, naive and utterly besotted.

And so you ran away together. He took everything you had and then he abandoned you, in a Moroccan hotel. You were in a foreign country with no money and a large hotel bill. You were in trouble.

It was fortunate than there was one policeman who could see to the heart of things. He gave you a chance to work to pay off your debt. And he introduced you to the woman who would get you on to your feet again. Wasn’t Candelaria wonderful? Such a strong practical woman, she discovered your talent for sewing and helped you find the means to earn your living with your needle again.

I loved watching you mature from a foolish girl into a strong, capable woman. Your mother would have been proud, but of course she didn’t know what had become of you. Because civil war had broken out not long after you left Spain.

It was luck you had Rosalinda Fox, first as a client and later as a friend. She was an Englishwoman, the mistress of a German diplomat, and a remarkable woman. At first I thought it would be difficult to sympathise with such a woman, but she had such a wonderful heart and spirit that I had too. And when I learned more of her story everything began to make sense, I understood the woman, and I understood why you valued her friendship so highly.

She had so many contacts, and she was able to help you bring your mother over from Spain. It was clearly a difficult adjustment for your mother, and I wished you had written a little more about that, and your relationship with her.

And of course you had just met the love of your life …

That could have been your happy ending but then, of course, came World War II.

I’m not entirely clear how you ended up back in Spain, set up by British Intelligence as a high-class couturier so that you could spy on the wives of high-ranking German officials.

Maybe I missed something, because I was less interested in this part of your story. It lacked the wonderful characters and the emotional journey of your Moroccan years. And there is a fine line between self-reliance and self-centredness, and there were times when you were on the wrong side of that line.

I must confess that I was pleased when you ran into somebody from the past – something that you were supposed to avoid at all costs – and he pulled you up on your behaviour.

Your cover was compromised and that set up a dramatic conclusion.

I did enjoy your story, but I wish you had told me what had happened to some of the wonderful characters who crossed your path. An afterword would have been lovely, or maybe there’s a sequel on the way?

I’ve already mentioned that I was sorry not to learn more about your mother, her story and your relationship, and I was sorry that after meeting your father back at the beginning of your book he didn’t feature a little more in your story.

There were rather too many loose ends, rather too many unanswered questions, for my taste I’m afraid.

It was a fine piece of storytelling, but that’s why I have to use the word ‘enjoyed’ and not the word ‘loved.’

Maybe your story would have resonated more if I was Spanish, if this was my history, and I understand that your book was a huge hit in your homeland.

And now I have rambled for quite long enough.

So I’ll just say that your story is very readable, and I’m very glad that we met.


It was Jo’s idea – celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

Not quite as easy as it looks. I’ve tweaked the categories to suit my reading style, and because I wanted to push disappointments to one site and simply celebrate some of the books many I have loved. And I’ve done it!


Six Books that took me on extraordinary journeys

The Harbour by Francesca Brill
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to the Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh
The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston
The House on Paradise Street by Sofka Zinovieff


Six books that took me by the hand and led me into the past

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn
The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon
Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd
The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace


Six books from the past that drew me back there

The One I Knew the Best of All by Frances Hodgson-Burnett
A Burglary by Amy Dillwyn
The Frailty of Nature by Angela Du Maurier
Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
The New Moon With the Old by Dodie Smith
As It Was & World Without End by Helen Thomas


Six books from authors I know will never let me down

The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
Closed at Dusk by Monica Dickens
Monogram by G B Stern
Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor
In the Mountains by Elizabeth Von Arnim


Six books I must mention that don’t fit nicely into any category

Shelter by Frances Greenslade
Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon
When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones
Alys, Always by Harriet Lane
The Roundabout Man by Clare Morrall
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood


Six Books I started in the first six months of the year and was still caught up with in July

The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone
The Deamstress by Maria Dueñas
Greenery Street by Denis MacKail
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
White Ladies by Francis Brett Young


Do think about putting your own sixes – it’s a great way of perusing your reading, and I’d love to read more lists.

Works in Progress

I will never be a one book at a time girl. I need a book to hand for a variety of possible moods and for different concentration level. I need big books that I know I can get lost in and I need small books that will fit in my handbag ….

But it’s easy to go too far, to have a book too many. And I think I’m on the edge of that, and so I’m going to take stock.

Nine books …

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

I struggled with Trollope for a long time, but a couple of months ago I picked this one up and I began to finally understand why so many love him. But I put it to one side to finish a library book that someone else had reserved and didn’t pick it up again. I really must!

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I very much like the look of The Innocents by Francesca Segal, but I thought I would reread the book that inspired it before I picked it up. It’s a long time since I read The age of Innocence, and I am pleased to report that I still love it and that it is a fascinating book to study even when you are familiar with the story, the characters, the milieu.

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

I’d had a difficult day and my Virago and Persephone bookcases were calling me loudly. There is no better therapy. I’d read that this was lovely and it is, so I’m reading it slowly.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark

I’ve been reading this one on and off for years, going back and forth, back and forth. Not because I’ve forgotten anything important, but because I love the journey and I love the details …

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

This is my handbag book of the moment. It’s a wonderful, distinctive piece of crime writing, and I plan to finish it in my lunch break tomorrow.

The Harbour by Francesca Brill

This arrived in the post yesterday, and it was one of those books that just made me start reading straight away. It’s a big, dramatic story of love and history, set in Hong Kong during World War II, and I have a feeling I’m going to whistle through – it’s compulsive reading!

The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone

This is a lovely childhood memoir, packed full of stories and drawings. It’s one of those books I could happily live in, but I must finish and give it back to the library.

The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

I am loving this: a big romantic epic set against the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. It got buried under knitting and newspaper on the coffee table for a while but I’ve pulled it out again because I do want to press on.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

(not pictured)

I picked this up for last month’s Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Readalong, and I could see straight away that it was a great book, but I just didn’t have the concentration to do it justice. I’m going to finish it before I move on to this month’s book, The Sleeping Beauty, to keep my chronology straight …

And I think that’s it. All good books, all books I want to finish, and I must finish at least two of them before I pick up anything new.

But nine works in progress is silly, and I haven’t even counted books for long term readalongs!

How many books do you read at a time? How do you keep track?

Please tell!