With her sixth novel, Muttontown, N.Y., novelist Brenda Janowitz has done something that will surprise her loyal readers. Known for domestic dramas set in the heart of Jewish-American culture, she’s now created a novel centered around an icon of a different sort — Grace Kelly. Or, at least, Grace Kelly’s wedding dress.
None of the protagonists of “The Grace Kelly Dress” (Graydon House, $16.99) is Jewish, though one is engaged to a young man adopted from South Korea by Jewish parents — “Of which there are plenty in my temple,” Janowitz said by phone. After knocking out six novels since 2007, a break was certainly in order.
Janowitz almost made the leap to a more universal focus with her last novel “The Dinner Party,” which focuses on a Passover seder. “About halfway through, I thought, really, this is just a holiday meal. Why not make it Thanksgiving?”
Though she stuck with Passover that time, she got notes from readers of many different backgrounds saying, “Oh my God, this is just like our Christmas dinner,” or Easter, or even Diwali, a Hindu celebration. So this time she decided to go for something explicitly out of her wheelhouse.
“The Grace Kelly Dress” was a stretch for Janowitz in another way. “It’s my first novel that’s not set in the same time I was writing it,” she explained. In fact, there are three different time periods, one for each of her three protagonists. Rose is a seamstress in the atelier of a famous dress designer in Paris in 1958. She is working on a dress for a wealthy client who wants something inspired by the vision of loveliness that Grace Kelly wore when she married Prince Rainier in 1956. “I’ve been obsessed with that dress since I first laid eyes on it as a little girl,” Janowitz said.
The second storyline takes us to New York in 1982, where sorority sister Joanie has inherited a beautiful Grace Kelly-style wedding dress from her mother. There are just two small problems: She wants big, voluminous sleeves like Princess Diana wore on her wedding day, and she’s not in love with her fiance.
Joanie’s daughter, Rocky, in 2020, is very much in love with her sweet Asian-Jewish man. But unfortunately, she can’t stand the dress she’s inherited from her mother.
“Though Rocky’s story came pretty easily, the research on the earlier plots was a killer,” Janowitz recalled. She watched dozens of old movies to get the flavor of the dialogue for each period. For the myriad facts, newspaper articles and details involved in the story, she relied on her friends in library science.
The most difficult moment in Janowitz’s process came after the first draft, when her editor suggested that Joanie’s story wasn’t as strong as the other two — that things just happened to her, rather than her taking action to move her life forward. Instead of a patch job, Janowitz decided to “rip the whole thing out and start from scratch.”
At the heart of Joanie’s story is that her older sister has recently died at 20. To dig into this plotline, Janowitz interviewed people who had lost siblings, as well as those who had experience with 1980s drug culture and the punk music scene.