Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Dressmaker - Kate Alcott

If you've already read this review, nothing's changed except I added the Bechdel Test section at the end.  I guess it was enough text that it showed the review written as today, rather than last month!


Just in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic comes 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.


I think it's fantastic that I had completely forgotten what this story was about and that I read it on an e-reader so I didn't have a back cover to read.  It's also great that I didn't remember very much about the Titanic survivors, so I honestly didn't have a clue what was going to happen!  Even with foreknowledge, I think the suspense was still handled very well.

Honestly there isn't much to say outside of what is already said on the back cover.  I wasn't a huge fan of the love triangle - I didn't understand at all why the millionaire was interested in Tess.  She is significantly below his class, and they've had like...a conversation.  Sure it was an interesting conversation, but not really a good reason for a millionaire to marry a servant girl.

 It mostly seemed like the love triangle was made entirely so that the author could explore the differences between class, independence vs. stability, dreams vs. safety, etc.

On the other hand, I loved that for the most part the female characters weren't like modern women set in history.  Yes, there were suffragette views, because that was very much going on in America at the time, but their expectations match what was in history and our main character still very much followed class views.  She wanted to break out of them and saw America as an opportunity to do so, but she saw and followed class differences.  I think that is partially why I was startled by her acceptance of the millionaire's attentions - I would have expected her to be more surprised.

Lucile Duff Gordon (Tess's boss, and an acutal historical figure) is a very complicate character, and I wish we had got more of her as a person.  The mystery as to why she is the way she is went on a bit too long and was addressed very briefly.  It is very in character for her to do so, but I do wish we had more reason to sympathize with her than we get.  I also wish her relationship with her husband was more explored.  I feel like Tess and her reporter friend Pinky were very well formed characters, Jim was an ok character, but the Duff Gordons and Jack Dawson really weren't developed at all.  I had a lot of unanswered questions about them specifically, but also about the relationships between all of them (why on earth did Lucile hire Tess?  She's a bit mysterious about it and it's not believable at all.  Why is Pinky so upset about Tess/Jim things?  At first I thought it was because she liked Jim, but then just wasn't why).  I also would have like the book a tiny bit more if it had ended a page earlier.  The ending wasn't bad, but it was slightly cliche. 

I will warn you, I would imagine many readers were disappointed in how the book handled the sinking.  Not much is written of the actual sinking.  The majority of the book is centered around the trials.  I personally found this really interesting, and it was very well researched from what I can tell after looking up Wikapedia trusted sources about the Titanic after finishing this book.  But if you were wanting sinking drama, you only get that in the aftermath not during the event, which didn't take more than a couple chapters (maybe even one chapter, I can't remember).


It was an engaging novel, and I had a fun reading it.  The trials were well researched and it was an interesting look at a time period I haven't done a lot of reading on.  The class situation could have been researched a little bit more and the characters more plausible, but otherwise it seemed well researched on the Titanic.  Maybe not a book for hard core history books, but a good read I'd recommend to dabblers in historical fiction and who enjoy chick lit.

Bechdel Test

“I have no need to com­pete; you may have the at­ten­tion,” Lu­cile said in her huski­est, haugh­ti­est voice.
“Oh, stop it, Lucy. Nei­ther of us is im­pov­er­ished on that score. Re­ally, you are cranky lately.”
“If you were pre­sent­ing a spring col­lec­tion in New York in a few weeks, you’d be cranky, too. I have too much to worry about with all this talk of women hik­ing their skirts and flat­ten­ing their breasts. All you have to do is write an­other novel about them.”
The two of them started squeez­ing past the dozens of valises and trunks, brass hinges glow­ing in the wan­ing light, their skirts of fine wool pick­ing up lay­ers of damp dust turned to grime.
“It’s true, the tools of my trade are much more portable than yours,” Eli­nor said air­ily.
“They cer­tainly are. I’m forced to make this cross­ing be­cause I don’t have any­one com­pe­tent enough to be in charge of the show, so I must be there. So please don’t be friv­o­lous.”
Eli­nor closed her para­sol with a snap and stared at her sis­ter, one per­fect eye­brow arched. “Lucy, how can you have no sense of humor? I’m only here to wish you bon voy­age and cheer you on when the ship de­parts. Shall I leave now?”
Lu­cile sighed and took a deep breath, al­low­ing a timed pause. “No, please,” she said. “I only wish you were sail­ing with me. I will miss you.”
“I would like noth­ing bet­ter than to go with you, but my ed­i­tor wants those cor­rected gal­leys back by the end of the week.” Eli­nor’s voice turned sunny again.

There are more like conversations sprinkled throughout the book with women talking about work or about suffragette issues, so this book passes the Bechdel test with flying colors!  It surprised me actually, because it is more of a chick lit sort of historical fiction book, and I don't generally expect chick lit to pass the Bechdel test (As backwards as that may sound.  But if you think about it, chick lit is generally focused on how the girl gets the guy).


  1. This book sounds so much like The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan. I didn't like that book very much though! I'm glad you enjoyed this one. :)

  2. Yeah, I'm not entirely sure it's a book I would recommend unless I knew the person was interested in this sort of thing. I definitely enjoyed it, but it's more of a good beach read than a book I'd fall in love with if that makes sense.


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