Pru is on her own. But then, so are plenty of other people. And while the loneliness can be overwhelming, surely she’ll find a party somewhere?
Pru’s husband has walked out, leaving her alone to contemplate her future. She’s missing not so much him, but the life they once had – picnicking on the beach with small children, laughing together, nestling up like spoons in the cutlery drawer as they sleep. Now there’s just a dip on one side of the bed and no-one to fill it.
In a daze, Pru goes off to a friend’s funeral. Usual old hymns, words of praise and a eulogy but… it doesn’t sound like the friend Pru knew. And it isn’t. She’s gone to the wrong service. Everyone was very welcoming, it was – oddly – a laugh, and more excitement than she’s had for ages. So she buys a little black dress in a charity shop and thinks, now I’m all set, why not go to another? I mean, people don’t want to make a scene at a funeral, do they? No-one will challenge her – and what harm can it do?
The Black Dress is the latest novel from Deborah Moggach. I’ll be completely honest – this isn’t the sort of novel that I would normally pick up, but I really enjoyed this, particularly as I thought I had a good idea of where it was going, only for it to turn out to be something completely different to what I was expecting. It just goes to show that it is sometimes good to take a chance on a book that on the surface of it may not seem as though it’s for you.
The Black Dress sees 70-year-old Prudence – Pru – suddenly and unexpectedly single when her husband decides that he needs to “find himself”. She is – understandably – devastated. She has no warning that this is coming, fully expecting the two of them to see out their days together. Told solely from Pru’s perspective, it’s easy to feel sympathy for her, particularly as another betrayal follows on shortly after from an equally unexpected quarter. She struggles in the immediate aftermath, experiencing a lethargy that prevents her from undertaking all but the most urgent tasks, and seems content to wallow in her misery for a period rather than facing the world – which suddenly seems to be populated by happy couples of all ages – alone.
After unintentionally attending the wrong funeral and feeling a little embarrassed alongside a frisson of excitement, she begins to do so deliberately. What better time to pick up a newly eligible widower to see out her life with? It sounds odd, and I’ll admit that I had my concerns when I first read the blurb, but it works. Pru is nervous in those circumstances, and yet finds it strangely thrilling as well, soon realising that funerals are a time when old friends and distant family members crawl out of the woodwork. So long as she has a cover story prepared, it’s unlikely that she’ll be questioned too closely. It is odd, and perhaps slightly morbid, and yet I did find it fascinating, particularly as she seems to get away with it. It’s an unusual idea, but it works as a concept, and leads to some amusing, awkward, and downright cringeworthy moments.
Aside from this rather dubious tendency to gate-crash funerals, Pru is a fantastic character, and I enjoyed seeing a novel told from the perspective of a character who is older than most. Moggach brilliantly highlights how “women of a certain age” are perceived against the reality, and I found myself cheering Pru on in her endeavours. She might not make the most obvious choices in the days, weeks, and months following Greg’s betrayal, but I understood her motives, and I wanted her to be happy. Flawed and imperfect, she is a sympathetic character, and I found myself sharing in her anger and her sorrow as she reminisces about the past and wonders where everything went wrong.
It’s difficult to summarise The Black Dress, particularly as I don’t want to give anything away. I found it to be by turns poignant and amusing, and it has some unexpectedly dark undertones at times. Pru is a wonderful protagonist, and one who doesn’t always behave as you might expect. The Black Dress is the first novel I’ve read – I think – that strays into COVID-19 pandemic territory, and we see first UK lockdown from Pru’s perspective. If you’d asked me, I’d have said that I didn’t particularly want to read about COVID in fiction just yet but found that it didn’t actually bother me at all. March 2020 seems a long time ago already.
The Black Dress will be published by Tinder Press on 22 July. Huge thanks to Louise Swannell for the opportunity to read and review ahead of publication.