Larisa Pearl returns to her hometown after the death of Ursula, her beloved great aunt. Residents in the small seaside town of Kent Crossing greet Larisa with enthusiasm, believing that she’s taken time off from her stellar career at Sotheby’s to restore Ursula’s red brick mansion, known as Elmhurst. But it’s not just the mansion that’s falling apart. Larisa’s life is a mess. She’s just been fired from her job and suffered a breakup with her boyfriend.
Walking down Main Street, Larisa pauses to admire a wedding gown in the window of The Little French Bridal Shop. There’s no way she’s getting married, but the fantasy proves hard to resist. The shop’s owner, Mrs. Muldoon, is thrilled to see Larisa. Soon, she’s standing in a dressing room, undergarments provided by Mrs. Muldoon, trying on one gown after another. When pressed for a date, Larisa says, “June.” And the groom? Mrs. Muldoon answers her own question: “Tall, dark, easy on the eyes? Well, he’d have to be to land someone like you.”
In a small town, news travels fast. Soon everyone is buzzing about Larisa’s upcoming nuptials. But a wedding isn’t the only thing Larisa is lying about. When asked about her parents – Ward and June Cleaver, Mrs. Muldoon calls them – Larisa allows everyone to think they are traveling the world. Actually, her parents are living in a retirement community in New Hampshire where her father, Clark, cares for her mother, Kittie, who is in the throes of dementia.
Larisa’s falsehood says more about her than it does about her parents. Growing up, Kittie was a loving and supportive mother to Larisa. Now that Larisa has lost that ballast, she’s like a ship at sea, taking on water and sinking fast. Elmhurst becomes the port in the storm, a familiar place where she can be comforted by memories of her family, while taking on the renovation.
There’s someone else with an attachment to Elmhurst. Jack Merrill began working as the property’s caretaker when he was 17, forming a close bond with Ursula. The elderly woman was fond of schooling Jack in the finer points of life, teaching him about everything from classical music to martinis. While those lessons, often carried out over afternoon tea, expanded Jack’s cultural horizons, a rift soon developed between him and his wife, Holly. High school sweethearts, Holly and Jack now have three 11 year-old sons, triplets. Holly resented the hours Jack spent at Elmhurst. “You’re married to that house, that’s who you’re married to,” she would say.
With Ursula’s death, Holly hopes his time at the mansion will end. But when Larisa asks for his help restoring Elmhurst, he agrees. As Jack and Larisa work side by side, whether painting or tearing down wallpaper, they grow closer. After they share a kiss, Jack is the one who pulls back. How can he abandon his family? Shouldn’t he work to save his marriage rather than a mansion?
Larisa, meanwhile, has to deal with Brent, her ex-boyfriend, who unexpectedly shows up and, hearing about the upcoming wedding, believes he and Larisa are getting married. First on Larisa’s agenda, however, is coming to terms with her mother’s illness.
Jennifer Dupree’s debut novel doesn’t take an easy route. While a romance is at the heart of the story, she demonstrates that relationships, whether between partners or parents and children, are complicated. Larisa is a woman with issues, but aren’t we all? It took me some time to warm up to the character, but she soon won me over. She’s a survivor and these days that’s something to celebrate.
The Little French Bridal Shop
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