REVIEW: The Roaring Days of Zora Lily by Noelle Salazar
2023, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History: A costume conservator is preparing an exhibition featuring movie costumes from the 1920s to present day. As she gingerly places a gown once worn by Greta Garbo on a mannequin, she discovers another name hidden beneath the designer’s label, leaving her to wonder—who is Zora Lily?
1924, Seattle: Poverty-stricken Zora Hough spends her days looking after her younger siblings while sewing up holes and fixing hems for clients to bring in extra money, working her fingers to the bone just to survive. But at night, as she lies in the bed she shares with one of her three sisters, she secretly dreams of becoming a designer like Coco Chanel and Jeanne Lanvin.
When her best friend gets a job dancing in a club downtown, Zora is lured in by her stories of music, glittering dresses and boys. She follows her friend to the underground speakeasies that are at once exciting and frightening—with smoke hanging in the air, alcohol flowing despite Prohibition, couples dancing in a way that makes Zora blush and a handsome businessman named Harley. It’s a world she has only ever imagined, and one with connections that could lead her to the life she’s always dreamed of. But as Zora’s ambition is challenged by tragedy and duty to her family, she’ll learn that dreams come with a cost.
Dear Ms. Salazar,
I perked up when I saw the blurb for this book – women’s historical fiction 1920s fashion designer/modern clothing conservator plus a bit of a mystery. Now I’ve mentioned in other reviews that I’m getting tired of the dual-timeline plot but as this book progressed, I found to my astonishment that I actually would have enjoyed getting more of that instead of what was there.
Zora Lily Hough and her 1920s family live hand-to-mouth in Seattle after her father’s injury at the logging camp led him to alcohol. Zora and her mother spend their days repairing clothes for others as well as turning their own family clothes into hand-me-downs of hand-me-downs. Zora shrank from the shame and scorn she got in school, hating that her younger siblings must endure the taunts as well. Zora has dreams though, of one day owning her own boutique and selling her daring designs.
Fast forward to 2023 when a clothing conservator at the Smithsonian is mounting a show of glamourous Hollywood fashions and discovers a mystery. Under the sewn in label of a dress worn by Greta Garbo is a hand sewn name that is not the same. Who is or was Zora Lily?
I’d thought that the book would flip between the two timelines but actually the 2023 era only bookends the majority of the story. I started out enthused and soaking up the story of hardscrabble Zora as she is forced to take a job away from her family in order to earn more money. In the evenings and weekends, Zora enjoys herself at speakeasies downtown where she meets handsome (all the girls want him) Englishman Harley (who sadly is more like a wish fulfillment boyfriend than a real character) who immediately falls head over heels for her. Zora’s job as a daytime nanny is demanding but most of the rest of the staff love her and her charges adore her. The parents don’t seem to have any qualms about their nanny dancing away each night nor later with her dating one of their friends and the only sand in Zora’s Vaseline is a bitchy maid who has it out for Zora.
Then of course something that was telegraphed for ages happens and Zora finds herself leaving Seattle for the glitz of Hollywood where her dreams come crashing down. Back home she can’t bring herself to explain to anyone why she came home – including the man who loves her but was forced to leave the country. No, Zora ignores his letters for about six months then cries a little tear when she thinks he’s moved on. Shrugging that off, she finally (!) begins to fight for her dream after continually putting that off. Finally (!) I thought.
Of course Zora works hard – she’s nothing if not a very hard worker. The family pitches in, a local businesswoman helps a bit and the dream comes true. But what about Harley whom Zora ignored and didn’t contact for months? Yeah, that works out, too. But I found myself flipping pages and not really being engaged with the story anymore. The brief bit about one of her friends being an immigrant went nowhere. The interracial relationship another friend had was given one dramatic turn before also being abandoned. Frankly the middle third of the book felt more like it would be a “montage” scene if this was a movie. Instead of quick images though, it was described in entirely too much detail for what it was. Even the wrap-it-up end piece dragged. I found myself plodding through Ho-hum Days and Months rather than much Roaring. C