Mary Chamberlain's novel "The Dressmaker's War" is a well-plotted, event-filled book, but you will have to spend it in the company of a heroine who steps from one disaster into another. Ada Vaughan is an ambitious and talented dressmaker in London, an up-and-coming star modiste who dreams of opening her own couture house. Then one fateful day she meets a charming young man named Stanislaus von Lieben who sweeps her off her feet and on to Paris.
Unfortunately, World War II breaks out. Stanislaus manages to get a car and drives them over the border into Belgium, to the city of Nimur, where he promptly abandons her, without clothes or money. "Nimur, no more" becomes the novel's leitmotif as Ada swears to wise up and toughen up. She is briefly saved by nuns who take her into their convent, give her a habit and a new name, Sister Clara. However, it turns out Ada is pregnant. The habit disguises her growing belly, but when the baby is born he is whisked away, presumably to be given up for adoption. She spends the rest of the novel pining for her infant and vowing to find him.
But there's a war on. The Germans invade Belgium and round up the nuns, who are sent to Munich on cattle trains. There, they are put to work in an old people's home, caring for retired officers and other muckety-mucks. But one day, Ada is separated from the group and sent to a house near Dachau. Somehow, the Germans got wind of her profession and now put her to work as a dressmaker for the Commandant's wife and her friends.
One day in 1945, she finds the place empty. The doors are open and everyone has disappeared.
Strange soldiers appear and tell her they're Americans. The war is over. But Ada has become deranged and doesn't understand what they're saying. They manage to get her back to the nuns, who nurse her back to health. Eventually, she is shipped back to London as a Distressed British Subject.
But of course our poor girl's troubles are far from over. Her mother, always cruel, won't let her into the house. She manages to find a job as a waitress and also earns money from prostitution. That is how she meets Gino Messina, who soon becomes her regular client; she thinks of him as a lover who will set her up in a dressmaking business. He hints and flatters until the day he introduces her to Stanley Lovekin and demands that she sleep with him. The horrified Ada realizes not only that Gino is a pimp, but that Stanley is the con man she met as Stanislaus.
The novel gallops toward a blistering end. I won't give away what other surprises are in store and what secrets come to light. Suffice it to say there is much courtroom drama, with Ada at its center. There are perhaps a few too many coincidences in this overstocked whale of a tale, but it does make for a rousing read. It's a good debut by an author previously known as a historian.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis and a past winner of the National Book Critics Circle's Nona Balakian Excellence in Reviewing Award.