The Blurb On The Back:
Welcome to The House of Serendipity, where friendships are fashioned and destinies designed!
Meet Sylvia Cartwright, the 1920s’ Eloise Bridgerton, determined to break societal conventions. And Myrtle Mathers, a maid with more ambition than Downton’s Daisy. They know that the perfect outfit can make dreams come true, and their dazzling designs are the talk of 1920s London …
So when Agapantha Portland-Prince wants to escape her glamorous debutante ball for a life of adventure, it’s their magical talents she needs. But can the girls make their secret dreams a reality, or will this be the most stylish scandal of the century?
SEQUINS AND SECRETS was released in the United Kingdom on 10th June 2021. Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s 1926 in London.
15-year-old Myrtle Mathers has had more than her fair share of loss in her short life. Her parents both got sick with TB and although her mum survived, her dad died a month ago. To pay the family’s debts, Myrtle’s mum had to sell the tailor shop where Myrtle has spent her whole life and to go back to Ireland to convalesce with Myrtle’s grandmother. But Myrtle’s kept her sewing machine and dressmaking equipment and still dreams of being a dressmaker and designer just like her hero, Coco Chanel, so that she can one day earn enough money to buy a new tailoring shop and bring her mum back from Ireland.
Until then, Myrtle has taken a job as a maid at Serendipity House where the Duke and Duchess of Avalon with the Duke’s daughters 17-year-old Lady Delphine and 15-year-old Lady Sylvia. The Duchess – Marmalade – is famous for her unconventional and bold attitude to life, and has a loving relationship with her step-daughters. Delphine is a tall, gangly girl who’s currently in her Debutante Season and desperate to make a good impression on both Queen Mary and the other Debs in order to secure herself a marriage proposal. Sylvia is home-schooled by her governess, Miss Smurfett, and is as unconventional as her stepmother, more interested in the theatre and designing costumes and outfits than in the Debutante season and marriage proposals.
The family are throwing a sumptuous Debutante Ball with a Venetian theme for Delphine, but while Myrtle is put to work in the kitchen, Sylvia discovers that the very expensive dress she bought from Paris makes Delphine look like a sea monster. When Sylvia also learns that Myrtle knows how to sew, she convinces her to help design and make a whole new dress for Delphine – even though they only have a couple of days to design and make it.
Helping Delphine is just the start, however, because there are other Debutantes who also need their help in creating extraordinary outfits. But both girls know how important it is to keep their activities secret – Sylvia fears being sent to boarding school if her parents discover her doing something so common as designing clothes while Myrtle could lose her job and any chance of ever earning enough money to buy a shop of her own …
Lucy Ivison’s historical novel for readers aged 9+ (the first in a series) will appeal to budding fashionistas and fans of Downton Abbey and features some great illustrations by Catharine Collingridge that respect the period fashions while making them seem contemporary. The story itself moves at a good pace and while Myrtle and Sylvia’s friendship hits expected beats and the end is a bit rush, I cared enough about them to want to read the sequel.
The alternating first person narration between Sylvia and Myrtle works really well. Ivison draws a distinction between the clever, creative and confident but careless Sylvia who is used to getting her own way but scared of disappointing her parents and being sent to some boarding school and the equally clever and creative Myrtle, who is all too aware of her position in the house and the risks she is taking on Sylvia’s behalf. This is particularly well done in a scene between Myrtle and Stan (the son of the tailor who bought Myrtle’s shop) where Stan warns her just what she has to lose and Myrtle is conflicted because notwithstanding the class difference, she genuinely likes Sylvia and believes in their friendship.
I think this is why I was disappointed by the inevitable scene where this is put to the test. I felt that Ivison could have made a lot more of the scene where Sylvia behaves less than honourably – firstly by putting a scene in her point of view explaining her actions with her father rather than cutting away from it – and secondly by making a bit more of the confrontation that Myrtle has with her. I don’t think it helped that the lead up to the scene and particularly the reaction of Sylvia’s father didn’t quite ring true given what had been seen before and nor did the delay in Marmalade’s intervention.
The beats of the story are familiar (although probably less so to readers in the target age group) but Ivison keeps it entertaining. I enjoyed Myrtle’s interactions with the other maids in Serendipity House and Stan (who wants to be an actor) because the dialogue works well and it’s another interesting contrast to see how many Myrtle is able to make friends easily while Sylvia is much of a loner. I also really enjoyed the scenes with Agapantha, a Deb who wants to run away to join an expedition to the Amazon by posing as a boy – Ivison does a good job here of showing how women’s roles were still tightly regulated even though attitudes were becoming looser.
Catharine Collingridge’s illustrations of the various outfits designed by Sylvia and Martha are very good – I particularly enjoyed the little details that she shows and the outfits, while very much in the 1920s style, also feel weirdly modern. If you have a younger reader who is in to fashion and design, they will probably find these really interesting and they definitely add a further dimension to the story.
My criticisms aside, I did enjoy this book and Ivison did well to make me care for both Sylvia and Myrtle. The next book teases a move to Hollywood and I would definitely be keen to check it out.