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Book Review: The Dressmaker

April 4, 2013

Book cover image, The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott The Dressmaker
by Kate Alcott
306 pages
Library Book

This is a story of the sinking of the Titanic and its aftermath. It is what happened to the survivors, some drawn from history, like “the Unsinkable Molly Brown” or the designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, and some fictional, like Tess Collins, the novel’s central character, who longs to be a famous dressmaker in her own right, and enters into Lady Duff Gordon’s employment, hoping for the chance to learn from her in New York.

If I discuss the plot in too much detail, am I spoiling anything? I wonder this generally about historical novels.

I found this story interesting because it focused so much on what happened after the comparatively familiar event of the actual sinking. Through the perspective of the fictional Tess, we see the chaos of the crash itself, and then the complexities of the emotions of being a survivor. The story’s events unfold over the investigation into what happened, tracing out guilt and culpability. Tess works closely with Lucile Duff Gordon, who is portrayed as mercurial: encouraging one minute, then lashing out the next, when she feels her authority threatened.

I was also interested in the way the story shifted to the perspectives of the journalists covering the events of the sinking and investigation, as they unfolded. Pinky Wade is a woman journalist, covering the story for the New York Times. Her role as a woman trying to make her name as an investigative journalist makes an interesting foil for the characterizations of Tess and Lucile– in a way that stands up to analysis if you mull it over after reading, but doesn’t whack you over the head with overt symbolism. So that was well done.

On the whole, this was a very good read. I’d been somewhat wary that it would be emotionally manipulative, but for the most part, I felt like the emotions were on a scale of believable novel characters having personal conflicts, rather than an epic scale. There were some elements that felt a little like artifice in Tess’s storyline, but that’s just because I’m alarmingly cynical about romantic subplots. The balance between real and fictional characters worked for me. And I felt that I’d learned more history from a fast read that held my interest. What more do you need?

At some point, I should add more historical time periods to my historical fiction blog. Maybe this summer.

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