The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott (pseudonym for Patricia O’Brien)
Doubleday February 21st 2012
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:
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.
This is the story of Tess Collins who is eager to leave her life as a maid behind in England. She has talent at being a seamstress with an eye for design, and as she looks for a new life in America she conveniently bumps into one of the biggest designers of her time, Lady Lucile Duff Gordon. They both sail together to America on the Titanic, where Tess is immediately thrust into the world of haves and have-nots. She finds herself stuck somewhere in between, with two men from opposite ends of the social class who take notice of Tess.
While Tess tries to piece together what she is capable of and where she belongs, she is at the beck and call of the imperious Lady Duff Gordon. Lady Duff Gordon is the epitome of a snobbish shrew with a dash of psychosis tendencies, with a husband who does nothing to improve upon this picture. Tess realizes their duplicity but she struggles with the fact that this woman is the only one who can immediately offer Tess a dream come true.
However, the aftermath of the Titanic must be dealt with as inquiries and testimony are required from the survivors. What happened on Lifeboat One is one of the most scandalous and newsworthy topics, as it is rumored that the Duff Gordons bribed the men on their lifeboat as they sailed to safety, not allowing any stragglers from oily blackness of the sea on their boat. And covering all of the news is Times reporter Pinky, a name I detested, as she was deserving of much more. Pinky was the character who strung them all together, from Tess to the crewmen and the rest of the personal stories she covered, who had a side story of her own.
A strong plot line and always an intriguing historical event is the fate of the Titanic. The Dressmaker has a lot to live up to, and even though some of the characters bear the factual names of those in reality, the driving force of the story is the romance between Tess and her wishy-washiness between her two loves. I cannot think of anything to complain of writing-wise, but the characters that the author created surrounding this tragic event could have used a bit more fleshing out. While there is still a lot of potential for this debut author, this is the one story that could have been treated as an epic saga given all the famous notables and the look at human nature in the face of tragedy (as well as corporate cover up, etc). With the many lives lost on the Titanic, this should have been a story that pulled at my heart and make me go through a box of tissues, but instead it was simply what the titles implies, a story of a dressmaker. And even with the hope for something more, I did enjoy the dressmaker’s story as it was set against that intriguing backdrop of the Titanic with a broad spectrum of characters.
I also wanted to add that I had read another review before reading the book which stated there were French phrases, or conversations, which encumbered her enjoyment of the book. I was so looking forward to these French phrases, but I remember only seeing two.
I read Danielle Steel’s No Greater Love back in the ’90s which was my first real intro to the Titanic, and I remember being deeply moved by it, reading it several times. Then of course came the blockbuster film with DeCaprio. What novel would you recommend that really knocked your socks off that was set against the Titanic? I would love to read more about it and the real people aboard the ship, and I need your help finding that story, as The Dressmaker didn’t fulfill that need for me. Edited to add that I found out after the fact that Patricia O’Brien actually wrote this.. and knowing that, I am even just a bit disappointed. She needs to dig a little deeper and pull out some real emotions on these big topics. I know she can do it!