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The Women in Black: A Novel

(10 customer reviews)


Last updated on November 25, 2021 3:42 pm


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“The book I most often give as a gift to cheer people up.” —Hilary Mantel

“Tart, beguiling, witty and compassionate, Madeleine St. John’s novel is a literary boost for the spirits.” —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

“A deceptively smart comic gem.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Witty and delicious.” –People

The women in black, so named for the black frocks they wear while working at Goode’s department store, are busy selling ladies’ dresses during the holiday rush. But they somehow find time to pursue other goals…

Patty, in her mid-thirties, has been working at Goode’s for years. Her husband, Frank, eats a steak for dinner every night, watches a few minutes of TV, and then turns in. Patty yearns for a baby, but Frank is always too tired for that kind of thing.

Sweet, unlucky Fay wants to settle down with a nice man, but somehow nice men don’t see her as marriage material.

Glamorous Magda runs the high-end gowns department. A Slovenian émigré, Magda is cultured and continental and hopes to open her own boutique one day.

Lisa, a clever and shy teenager, takes a job at Goode’s during her school break. Lisa wants to go to university and dreams of becoming a poet, but her father objects to both notions.

By the time the last marked-down dress is sold, all of their lives will be forever changed.

A pitch-perfect comedy of manners set during a pivotal era, and perfect for fans of
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
The Women in Black
conjures the energy of a city on the cusp of change and is a testament to the timeless importance of female friendship.

10 reviews for The Women in Black: A Novel

3.6 out of 5
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  1. quentle

    With characters you care about it is a compelling read.
    I loved it.
    Beautifully written .A real treat! Thoroughly enjoyable.

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  2. Kindle Customer

    I thoroughly enjoyed this lovely little novella! This took me back to one of my first jobs after high school, working as a sales clerk in a family owned department store very similar to Goode’s. It was the mid 60’s, but we were still required to wear dark dresses (black, brown, or navy blue) so as to present a dignified, professional appearance. Although this was a very quick read, the author expertly reeled me in. There is just enough info revealed to make the reader curious enough to keep reading. Each character’s personality is drawn sparingly, but through dialog, internal thoughts, and interaction with other characters, the author evokes real people, with real hopes, fears, and foibles, that the reader comes to share, and care about! Too long to be a short story, too short to be a full blown novel, this little gem of a novella is well worth the time, and I was very sorry to say goodbye when it ended. So much food for thought about the future of the main characters. Lots of mystery to ponder regarding less developed storylines. I loved every minute of it!

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  3. mags

    Huh? I bought this on Hilary Mantel’s recommendation because she said she often gives it “as a gift to cheer people up.” Well, I’m flummoxed. It’s a short book about some women who work in the cocktail dress department of a 1950s Sydney department store. The women are hard to distinguish from one another, e.g., one would be described as 30 and desperate to have a baby, another as 30 and flirting with lots of men. But which was named which? I had to keep thumbing back to try to recall which was who—not easy when a book has deckled-edge pages. And who cares? Dull. It’s a short book but I still gave up less than half way through. Didn’t cheer me up in the least. Just boring and frustrating.

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  4. J. A. Findlay

    I discovered this author and her limpid prose recently and have now read everything she ever wrote. This is my favourite..I saw a good film of the story but the book is better. The different salesgirls and their problems are clearly marked and they are all interesting. It has an upbeat ending which is quite rare in modern novels

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  5. Richmonde

    I’m afraid this book is really rather dull, even if it is set in a department store in the 50s. There are not nearly enough detailed descriptions of the clothes. We get a soap opera look at the staff’s home lives, when what we want is a blow by blow account of their working day, including gossip in the canteen, what they ate, how much their feet hurt, how rude the customers were.

    I don’t know why this book is billed as a “comic masterpiece”. There is no wit or style. Much too much space is given to some tedious Hungarians who speak slightly fractured English. I began to skip, but will carry on because I want to know what’s become of Frank.

    One interesting point: the older characters are concerned for the younger girls and try to find them boyfriends. If only this happened in real life.

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  6. Sherril S-K

    Rather than saying I finished this book, I’d prefer to say, I am finished with this book.

    I am only 24 pages into this book of 224 pages, but I’m afraid it would be agony to make myself read the next 200. I got it because Hilary Mantel, an author I have not had the interest to read, but still appreciated her blurb, “The book I most often give as a gift to cheer people up.” I thought I could sure use that and what a promising thing to say about a book. I thought it was going to be charming and “perfect for fans of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, which I most certainly am. Instead it read like an old fashioned book with 1950’s stale, old fashioned ideas without any hint of irony. Maybe it gets better and maybe at some point I will return to it, but for now it goes on my ‘picked up and put down’ and ‘did not finish’ lists.

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  7. Jane

    Books are meant to be read for the joy of the book. To laugh and fall in love with the characters. There are characters that you love and characters you love to hate. In the end, the point of a book is how it makes you feel.
    The characters in this book were wonderful. There is Patty who desperately wants children but her husband has never been ready. Fay who yearns to marry but can’t find a man that wants her. Lisa a young temporary worker who yearns to go to the university. Magda works in Model Gowns and has a happy marriage but has plans for more in her career.
    These are the women who work in Goode’s department store. Their lives will all change by the end of the book and I loved every minute of their journey.
    Some books are read when you need a laugh or some comfort, the characters become like old friends. This book is one I will reread many times and never get tired of. Anyone will love the book.

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  8. SundayAtDusk

    While I really liked this short novel, I wish I had reviewed it before I saw “Ladies In Black”, the 2018 movie based on it. I loved the movie so much, I watched it twice this weekend, and now the novel has kind of slipped into the back of my mind. The movie sticks pretty closely to the novel story, but it is so alive with characters and beautifully filmed, that I can’t remember exactly what was in the book and what was not. Oh well, it’s a good book that was made into a great movie. I highly recommend both.

    I’m truly surprised Madeleine St. John wrote such an uplifting type story, too. I’m currently in the middle of a biography on her by Helen Trinca, entitled “Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John”, and she appeared to have had a mostly unhappy life, complete with serious psychological problems, plus a mother who killed herself when Ms. St John was a child. If I had been asked to match up a novel with an author, I would have never in a million years matched up this one with Madeleine St John!

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  9. Jane Anderson

    The Women in Black is set in Goodes, a fictitious department store in 1950’s Sydney, uncannily similar to David Jones. The main characters, ‘the women in black’  work in the ‘ladies’ frocks’ department, and all wear the regulation black rayon crepe dresses, which, ‘were designed to Flatter both the fuller and the thinner figure, and truly enhanced neither’. The story includes both their friendships and rivalries at work, and delves into some of their personal lives, some happier than others. There is Magda, in charge the exclusive ‘model gowns’, is a refugee from eastern europe. She is viewed with suspicion by the rest of the ladies, but her life outside of Goodes is far more colourful and exciting than that of Patty, who is desperate for a child and is having troubles with her husband and  Faye, who despite having lots of boyfriends is starting to give up on ever finding a husband. Then there is Lisa, a holiday casual who has just finished school and is hoping to realise her dream of going to university despite her father’s objections, has just changed her name from Lesley, whose ‘ life really was, in all manner of possibilities, truly now and almost tangibly beginning’.

    Madeleine St John’s prose is sparkling and full of wit, and vividly recollects 1950’s Sydney. The unfolding stories of the main characters, and Magda’s fairy-tale like influence on some of their lives, makes for a very entertaining and satisfying read. I will look out for more books by this author – pity she only wrote 4!

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  10. DollyBantry

    Wonderful book, a hidden gem that deserves to be much better known! I saw the film, “Ladies in Black” on Netflix (also excellent) and I’m so pleased it led me to the book. It’s one of those books where you take the characters to your heart straight away, and find yourself really rooting for them. Full of sweet poignant moments that really capture a moment in time – one Sydney summer in the 1950s. A fantastic read

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