Book Review: The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath

TheWardrobeMistressAbout the Book

January 1947. London is in ruins, there’s nothing to eat, and it’s the coldest winter in living memory. To make matters worse, Charlie Grice, one of the great stage actors of the day, has suddenly died.

His widow Joan, the wardrobe mistress, is beside herself with grief. Then one night she discovers Gricey’s secret.

Plunged into a dark new world, she realises that the war isn’t over after all.

Format: ebook Publisher: Cornerstone Pages: 320
Publication: 7th Sep 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction

Purchase Links* ǀ Waterstones UK
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find The Wardrobe Mistress on Goodreads

My Review

Firstly, as an aside, can I say how good it is to come across a book blurb that is concise and doesn’t give too much away! Secondly, can I admit this is the first book I’ve read by Patrick McGrath but, on the strength of The Wardrobe Mistress, it certainly won’t be the last.

The book opens at the funeral of Charlie ‘Gricey’ Grice and the reader is immediately introduced to the ‘chorus’ who will be the book’s narrators, omnipresent onlookers to all the action. There is a sense that they already know what’s going to happen, that events are playing out in front of them as if in a play.

Gricey’s widow, Joan, is grief stricken at his death, finding solace in the touch and smell of his clothes, imagining she can hear his voice and sure she can sense his lingering presence. Her belief that Gricey’s spirit lives on is confirmed by the uncanny ability of the actor who takes over Gricey’s part in the play – Frank Stone – to enact the role exactly as her husband did – every mannerism, gesture and mode of speech exactly as he would have performed it. But, of course, everyone else knows Gricey is dead.

‘It’s certainly what we thought, and to think otherwise was mad, frankly, and heartbreaking too, poor Joan. But it seemed she could think both things at once, that he was dead, and alive too, in the body of another man.’

Frank’s performance – his ability to inhabit so perfectly the role performed by Gricey – is the spark that brings him and Joan together.   In addition, Frank’s obvious poverty as a not very successful actor and his aura of neediness awaken something in Joan. Only later does she begin to detect the fierce streak of ambition under the surface.

And it’s not long before Joan discovers that her beloved Gricey wasn’t the man she thought he was. He’d concealed things from her, things that would have made her think quite differently about him: ‘Gricey – the hypocrite. Gricey the deceiver. The betrayer. The charlatan, the traitor. Oh, he was a character all right…’ It becomes apparent that his life outside the theatre was as much a performance as when he was on stage: ‘Their life together now seemed nothing but an elaborate performance of pretence and disguise, yes, his whole life a performance, he’d never stopped performing…’

Joan’s disgust when she finds out the truth leads her down a path that will have far-reaching consequences and only increase her sense of grief, loneliness, betrayal and desperation. ‘It was another kind of grief she felt, and far worse, with what she thought of as the second death. Her sorrow now was for herself, that he hadn’t allowed her to hold him in her memory as she would have liked to, but had left her with only a mask.’

The author evocatively conjures up the atmosphere of post-war London: the food shortages, the cold, the grime, and the people struggling to get by.  ‘Magnificent in victory, oh yes – and bankrupt. Morally magnificent and economically broke. Exhausted. Oh, England. Smog, ruins, drab clothes, bad food, bomb craters and rats. There was work to be had – demolition.’  And although the war may be over, it isn’t the end of the evil forces that caused it or the need to fight against extremism and hate (a need which, sadly, continues to this day).

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see the lure of the theatre with its bright lights and ability – if only temporary – to transport the audience to another place, away from the everyday struggle to earn a living, to keep warm.   If it isn’t too obvious a metaphor, the theatre plays a starring role in the book along with the recurrent theme of performance.  The craft of the actors on stage and the thrill of live performance is celebrated.

‘He had of course that fierce bright fire in his eyes, it was always there when they came off stage at the end of the night, when they were full of life and of themselves.’

The role of the backstage staff, like Joan, proud of her skill as a wardrobe mistress and ruling the sewing room with a rod of iron, is recognised as well.

‘For it was an assault, what was suffered by the costumes in which actors stepped out each night then ripped off between scenes, until Joan and her girls took them in hand, applied sharp needles and, whispering soft words, brought them back good as new before sending them out to be ravaged again the next night.’

And as the book shows, it’s not only actors who use costume as a means of creating a character for themselves.  Nowhere is the single-minded intensity needed to be a successful actor more effectively conveyed than in the character of Vera, Joan’s daughter. In Vera, the insecurities of an actor preparing for performance are writ large. One moment she’s withdrawing into her own private space and the next she’s almost preying on others to harvest the real-life experiences needed to produce her stage performance.

The Wardrobe Mistress had it all for me: atmospheric period setting, intriguing mystery and well-developed characters.  I also enjoyed its very moving exploration of grief and betrayal, its joyful celebration of the theatre and insightful examination of the act of performance.  Highly recommended.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers Cornerstone, return for an honest review.

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In three words: Atmospheric, compelling, moving

Try something similar…Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson (click here to read my review)

PatrickMcGrathAbout the Author

Patrick McGrath was born in London in 1950. He grew up in the grounds of Broadmoor Hospital, the largest top-security mental hospital in the UK, where his father was Medical Superintendent. He was educated at Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit public school in Lancashire. In 1967 he left Stonyhurst under a cloud. In 1971 he graduated from the City of Birmingham College of Commerce with an honors degree in English and American Literature, awarded externally by the University of London.

Later that year he moved to Penetang, Ontario, where he worked in the Oakridge top-security unit of the Penetang Mental Health Centre. He then moved to British Columbia. There he worked as a kindergarten teacher, a bar-room musician, and a graduate student at Simon Fraser University. Since 1981 he has lived in Manhattan. He is married to actress and theatre director, Maria Aitken, and lives in New York City.

In 2017, Patrick McGrath accepted the offer of an honorary doctorate from the University of Stirling, in Scotland.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath

    1. Thank you, I think the author perfectly captured post-war London from what I’ve read in other books as obviously I don’t have first-hand experience! Cold weather, bad food, rationing, bomb-damaged buildings but resilient people, like Joan. If this sounds like your thing, you’ll enjoy it.


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