Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker
Kate Alcott
4 / 5

Published 2012

First Paragraph
"Tess pulled at the corners of the sheets she had taken straight from the line and tried to tuck them tight under the mattress, stepping back to check her work. Still a bit bunchy and wrinkled. The overseer who ran this house was sure to inspect and sniff and scold, but it didn't matter anymore."
Publisher's Description:
Just in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titaniccomes a vivid, romantic, and relentlessly compelling historical novel about a spirited young woman who survives the disaster only to find herself embroiled in the media frenzy left in the wake of the tragedy.

Tess, an aspiring seamstress, thinks she's had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired by famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon to be a personal maid on the Titanic's doomed voyage. Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men, one a roughly-hewn but kind sailor and the other an enigmatic Chicago millionaire. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes.

Amidst the chaos and desperate urging of two very different suitors, Tess is one of the last people allowed on a lifeboat. Tess’s sailor also manages to survive unharmed, witness to Lady Duff Gordon’s questionable actions during the tragedy. Others—including the gallant Midwestern tycoon—are not so lucky.

On dry land, rumors about the survivors begin to circulate, and Lady Duff Gordon quickly becomes the subject of media scorn and later, the hearings on the Titanic. Set against a historical tragedy but told from a completely fresh angle, The Dressmaker is an atmospheric delight filled with all the period's glitz and glamour, all the raw feelings of a national tragedy and all the contradictory emotions of young love.

Dear Reader,

This book reminded me of why I enjoyed Mrs. Poe and The Other Typist - it was a fun novel, but chock full of historical details which I always appreciate.  The story began with a young serving girl (Tess) who quits her job the day the Titanic is to set sail - and manages to finagle herself passage on board the ship with the illustrious fashion designer, Lady Duff-Gordon: a real-life (and larger-than-life) icon of the fashion world, and a true survivor of the ill-fated ship.  In fact, many of the characters that Alcott brings into her story were real people who survived the disaster, which lends a really interesting aspect to it all.  The actual story of the ship and its sinking only take up the first few chapters; the rest of the book details the outcome of it, focusing particularly on the senate hearings which were initiated by Senator William Alden Smith upon the survivors' arrival in New York City, via the Carpathia.

The book is intriguing right from the start because you love to hate Lady Duff-Gordon right from the get-go.  She is haughty and condescending and definitely entitled, feeling as if the world is there for her use (and abuse) only.  She walks all over people throughout the book, and part of the reason you want to keep reading is simply to find out if she ultimately topples from her precarious perch.  (I won't tell, though - you'll have to find out for yourself!)

The other characters are much more pleasant: I took immediately to the friends that Tess made aboard the ill-fated ship.  The humble crewman, the rich automobile man, and even the Unsinkable Molly Brown!  They are all endearing and their strong personalities make the rest of the book enjoyable.  Tess, meanwhile, doesn't seem to have much of her own personality, but that may be due to her former life, which was spent in service of people who mistreated her.  In America, you see her begin to believe in and discover herself.

You'll definitely want to ride along on the Titanic (even though you already know where it's headed), squeeze your way onto a lifeboat, and make sure that you stick close to Tess' side as she builds her new life - it's certainly an interesting story!

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