A reader of fashion writer and editor William Norwich’s latest novel, My Mrs. Brown, could be forgiven for thinking its titular heroine is living in the 1950s, like Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge. The lady described is in late middle age. Mrs. Brown is modest, fair-minded and dutiful, and lives in a quiet Rhode Island town. The highlight of her year is being asked to help with an inventory of the estate of a philanthropic widow. Only then does it becomes clear that the story takes place in the present day. Are there still people like this?
Norwich’s answer is an enthusiastic “Yes!” There are ladies who wear twinsets and sensible shoes, bake morning glory muffins and still write letters in the age of Facebook and endless texting. You’ll be surprised how shocked you are when you encounter the first F-bomb in this book. No, it does not come from Mrs. Brown.
During the inventory, Mrs. Brown sorts through Mrs. Groton’s sumptuous dresses, and she finds one whose twin she simply must have. She’s a good seamstress but she could never sew such a glorious garment. No, Mrs. Brown has to go to New York to find such a dress, and the prospect fills her with the terror and excitement of a recruit waiting to storm a beachhead.
Even if you find Mrs. Brown anachronistic, with the gentle conservatism of an age long-gone, you come to like and respect her. Then, you come to love her. For along with her belief in decency and humility comes tenacity. She is determined to overcome her fear of New York—its crazy transit system and good/bad smells and confusing street signs and all the rich and sophisticated people who still manage to be kind when they meet her—because she must have that Oscar de la Renta dress, which she has painstakingly saved for. She does not want the dress to entice a man, or to flatter her figure or even because she thinks she’s as good as Mrs. Groton, although she is. The reviewer will leave it to the reader to find out the reason why.
Goodness really is its own reward, says Norwich’s gentle-hearted book. Better yet, sometimes goodness is rewarded.