January 10, 2021

Karen Foxlee: "The Midnight Dress"

Title: The Midnight Dress [on Amazon | on Goodreads]
Series: None
Author: Karen Foxlee [Site | Goodreads]
Genres: Thriller/Mystery, Contemporary
Year: 2013
Age: 14+
Stars: 5/5
Pros: Atmospheric read, with characters who get under your skin. Evocative writing.
Cons: Quiet (if gloomy) story, where not much happens - at least on the surface.
WARNING! Description of a dead body (not graphic). Suicide by hanging. Alcohol addiction. An inappropriate relationship. The prelude to a would-be sex scene. A couple of male anatomy references.
Will appeal to: Those who can appreciate a subtly woven, darkly magical tale.

Blurb: Quiet misfit Rose doesn't expect to fall in love with the sleepy beach town of Leonora. Nor does she expect to become fast friends with beautiful, vivacious Pearl Kelly. It's better not to get too attached when Rose and her father live on the road, driving their caravan from one place to the next whenever her dad gets itchy feet. But Rose can't resist the mysterious charms of the town or the popular girl, try as she might. Pearl convinces Rose to visit Edie Baker, once a renowned dressmaker, now a rumored witch. Together Rose and Edie hand-stitch an unforgettable dress of midnight blue for Rose to wear at the Harvest Festival - a dress that will have long-lasting consequences on life in Leonora, a dress that will seal the fate of one of the girls. (Amazon excerpt)

Review: This is not only a reread book (which is usually the case when I write a full review), but a re-reread one. And I ended up giving it the full 5-star treatment (I originally rated it 4.5 in my 2018 mini-review), because even if not much happens, the story, the characters and the overall magic never get old for me. Also, just so you get your bearings: the story is set in 1986, in a small Australian beach town.


This is one of those quiet books where - despite a murder (and a murder mystery at that) being at its center, and a suicide occurring later in the story - it feels like nothing happens...except there's a lot boiling down the surface. I wouldn't even go as far as to say that it's character-driven, though some of the characters do stand out. The best way I can describe it is, it's magic-driven...and no, I don't mean magical realism. It's just that the atmosphere, the protagonist, the dressmaker's family tale, the (spellbinding) writing, all together create a thing of beauty, sad and melancholic, and yet warm and cozy like an old blanket. The mystery itself isn't hard to figure out, even if until the end there's an ambiguity about the perpetrator...but not about the victim, not anymore - if there ever was, because to me, it was clear early on which of the girls was killed...and then again I don't think that her identity was the point: it was more about how she ended up there. What I mean is, for a murder-mystery-centered book, TMD reads awfully (or, well, beautifully) like a mesmerising story about family and friendship, memories and choices, and about how love won't necessarily save you but can damn you instead. [...]


For all our differences, both in terms of path of life and temperament (though I could see a tiny bit of myself in her), I loved Rose, and felt fiercely protective of her. I especially loved how she acted like she didn't care - and probably fooled even herself about it - and yet she cared deeply, both for her friend Pearl and Edie the dressmaker. How she found her true self while climbing and exploring and merging with nature. I also loved how she slowly came out of her cocoon and let herself turn into a butterfly, if on her own terms (no pastel or bright colours for her, but a midnight-blue dress). And how real she felt overall. Of course, Rose's story is also - mainly, even - a story of pain and heartbreak, and for all purposes a tragic one (and that's all I can say without spoiling the whole thing), but I loved being in her head and seeing her change while evolving into the girl she was meant to be. As for the other main characters, Pearl and Edie were both well-developed, both because of and beyond their quirks (good or bad), and I feel like the author did a great job with having them come to life. It's funny, because there's a story within the story in TMD, and I'm not always the biggest fan of those, but this one fits perfectly...and again, its (female) protagonist comes to life, and I did care for her.
So, well...this book is sad and tragic and raw and poetic and magical, and it's got imperfect, perfectly written characters, and it's about a murder mystery but it's much more than a murder mystery, and I can only recommend it to everyone who isn't afraid of dark narratives, from the bottom of my heart.

Note: as I said, the story is set 1986 (the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which plays a part in the plot), and I don't remember if Rose's age is actually mentioned anywhere, but I pictured her as a 16 y.o.; then again, she mentions how her mother died in 1977, when she was 5, which would make her 14. Now, I still think there was a mistake, because her character reads older (also, she's clearly not a freshman...uh...freshwoman?). It's possible that she was a bit older than 5 when her mother died, so she might be 15 when the novel starts. Then again, the Cernobyl disaster happened in April, and there's hardly any space for her to have turned 15, since her mum should have died sometime in January and Rose should have been closer to 6 by then for her to be 15 in April 1986 - and anyhow, 15 still sounds too young to me. No big deal though - I just thought I'd mention it).

For more Thriller/Mystery books click here.
For more Contemporary books click here.
Like this book? You might also be interested in Kali Wallace: "The Memory Trees" (review to come).


  1. How excited that the book was even better for you the third time around. Caring that much about the character means the author did a fantastic job creating them. Glad this was a success for you (once again)

    1. She did! And this is, again, proof that rereading has a lot going for it (I know you don't reread, but honestly, I'd rather read the same beloved book 10 times than 10 new books that I "might" like LOL).

  2. Hmmm. Nice setting, sounds like a bit dark but not overmuch. I love revisiting a book multiple times- there are very few I can do with that with, but when you can it's great. :) Also, the Cernobyl angle has me wondering.

    1. The "Cernobyl angle" is there because of the lead's best friend Pearl, whose dad is a Russian her mother had a brief affair with. When the disaster occurs, Pearl (who's trying to find her father by sending letters to all his homonyms) worries about him being involved. It was a curious angle for sure, but then again, the whole book is (deliciously) quirky 🙂.

  3. I am intrigued, because I can honestly not say whether it would be for me or not

    1. If you can stomach an enchanting, but dark book (and I don't mean containing horror elements), then yes!

  4. I was 16 in 1986 too. I remember Chernobyl happening and how we had to stay inside all day when the cloud passed over California. It was kinda weird. Not sure this is my kind of book but I appreciate the review.

    1. I was 20, but I didn't live the same experience here in Italy. I'm sure it was weird! And thank you.

  5. I often have the opposite experience and rereading books doesn't improve my rating, unless they're a favorite that I would read compulsively over and over lol. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. The setting does sound dark! I think I could enjoy it though. Great revew !

    1. "I often have the opposite experience and rereading books doesn't improve my rating".
      That's peculiar! I mean, in my experience, books that straddle the line between 3 and 4 stars - and like this one, between 4 and 5 - almost always get better for me. I don't know if it happens to many other readers LOL. I hope you'll take a chance on it someday - and thank you!


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