Those who have not read “Painted Dresses” need to know that there will be some uncomfortable and sad situations in the book.
Gaylen has been having nightmares and can remember as a child, pulling her hair out in handfulls (you can see where this is going, right?) But that is not *all* that is happening in this book.
Ultimately, Gaylen, the main character in the book, is trying to reconcile three huge issues in her life. There is a LOT going on here. Gaylen has separated from her husband, is called back home to her father’s deathbed, and from there on in, is going to try to come to terms with her childhood memories that haunt her. Besides all that, Gaylen has been made to feel (for most of her life), responsible for her very irresponsible (and behaviorally challenged), younger sister Delia.
“This isn’t the life I wanted, Noleen. I can’t seem to get away from my family’s volatile way of life. I see someone like you, making simple plans, ordering your life around a family meal and a Christmas tree. You make it look so effortless. How do I get from here to normalcy?”
“Every family has a broken link. But, girl, what makes you think that you’re responsible for keeping your sister’s life smoothed over?”
“It’s what my father did. He passed it on to me.”
“You can choose not to do that, to live your own life.”
“Just like that? Delia will disintegrate.” I imagined her, like Truman, spending the rest of her life in prison.
“People fail one another. I’ve failed my kids lots of times. They fail me double that. We can’t keep one another from choosing to drop to the bottom of life.”
Gaylen and Delia find a stash of paintings of dresses that have instructions on them to deliver to various relatives, and since this ties in very neatly with Delia’s having to flee the state, they take this on. In the process, Gaylen has a chance to ask her relatives many questions about her childhood.
I did enjoy reading about Gaylen and Delia’s travels together. Delia has her own issues of course and this author certainly does not run out of creative plot strategems!
Delia is quite the challenge. She has no sense of how to conduct herself properly in public and often says (and does) shocking things that embarrass and cause Gaylen to constantly make her excuses for her. Delia is going to cause Gaylen, on top of everything else she is trying to handle, to make the choice to hide her from the law as she flees a shooting. (Delia’s behavior really does not impress the reader. At all.)
“I have to see Delia through this trial. I can’t leave her to flounder. She wouldn’t know what to do,” I said.
“Maybe looking out after Delia gives you purpose.”
“You make it sound as if I thrive on Delia’s dysfunction.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I do get weary of her….”
“What do you want, Gaylen?” Noleen echoed Braden.
A naked moment of clarity caused me to mutter, “Peace.”
Gaylen’s almost-ex, Braden, is just a nice guy. I really liked him. I also liked Gaylen’s cousin Tim (who ends up getting injured while on tour duty in Iraq). There is just so much happening in this book, but there are also long spurts when nothing much seems to happen (except internally). I am interested in reading more from this author, just to see how her other books compare. Certainly this kept my interest!
How the author ties up all the loose ends is quite creative, and I kept reading to find out what would happen to Gaylen, to Delia… would Delia ever learn? Would Gaylen find out the truth about the past, and how will she handle it? certainly the issues brought up at times were hard for me to read (there are references to adultery, some promiscuity, and child molestation figures big — although not graphically so — in this novel.) But there are also good things happening too. They meet some wonderful cousins, Noleen and Jackson, who take them in over the Christmas holidays and make them part of the family. Braden comes through and learns to help Gaylen as he takes on her burdens. Ultimately, Delia and Gaylen learn to handle life as it comes, to roll with the punches, and to move on in their lives.
“I woke up that first morning after I had seen Effie and sent the ashes of that last dress into the ocean. My senses had come awake to the fact that i was no longer dead. I had forgiven my mother. I laid to rest the idea that Truman might ever confess. Whether he did or didn’t was not going to change me a bit. That was when I first realized that I was no longer practicing at loving my husband as Tim had said. I lay there in my bed listening to my roommate headed off for parts unknown realizing that I could finally belong somewhere just by my act of will.”