Janet's Reviews > The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott
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's review
Jul 09, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: young-adult, historical-fiction
Read in July, 2012

Recently off-the-farm girl Tess Collins escapes from an unsatisfying stint in service to the British upper crust by elbowing her way onto the Titanic as a last-minute, replacement lady's maid to Lady Lucille Duff Gordon. Tess, who dreams of being a fashion designer and high-end seamstress, is over the moon when she meets and gets to work for this Couture fashionista en route to her New York fashion show. After the Titanic sinks and survivors arrive in New York, Tess is torn between loyalty to her employer and to a sailor she met on the Titanic, who hints darkly that Lady Lucille's behavior on the lifeboats was not as it should have been.

Alcott hits some of the same lush and light romantic notes that made The Titanic such a popular movie, and avoids rehashing scenes that would have made it painfully derivative (such as the musicians on the sinking deck). The love triangle is more interestingly period than many in YA: Tess is attracted to two suitors, a sailor her age and an established, successful, twice-divorced older American man. Tess's feelings for these two men are central to the novel, and Alcott convinced me why she would be torn between the two of them. What's even better is that Alcott shows the tension between romance and Tess's goals and self-discovery. She wants to make a life for herself and have ownership of it, to understand her own desires and decide how to act on them, without simply being swept off her feet.

When a novel deals with such a famous historicial topic, both what the author includes and what she excludes are interesting. Most of the novel takes place after the Titanic disaster, dealing with both survivors and reactions of the public. Just a few comments about what wasn't there: The author's journalism career shows in her portrayal of Pinky Wade. Alcott paints Pinky Wade as a truth-seeker for the most part, with little mention of the famously sensationalist, muck-raking, and inaccurate press that surrounded the Titanic disaster. Oddly, she doesn't talk about the ship captain at all. Also absent is the context of trans-Atlantic shipping - how the lack of lifeboats, speed through iceberg areas, etc., were common risks taken on every steamship trip. Instead here White Star executives come across as straightforward, stonewalling corporate villains.

The Dressmaker is fundamentally a psychological novel, showing the complexities of personality and how hate, fear, envy, self-absorption and guilt crash into one another. The love triangle is also very personal and individual to characters' interactions, not a simple contrast of tropes (Rich Older Man vs. Young Poor Hottie) (thank you Kate Alcott!!) Unusually for YA, the most interesting characters are the flawed and complex adults: especially Lady Lucille Duff Gordon and her sister Elinor, and also secondary characters like Pinky Wade's bedridden father, Tess's older suitor, and the American politicians who hustled to be in charge of deposing the survivors. In comparison, the characters and Tess's experiences within the fashion house are relatively lightly sketched. The novel takes some of the same dramatic liberties as the ABC Family TV show "Jane by Design" does (it's unlikely that someone so untried would be given so much responsibility, but it's a forgivable stretch for YA). However I really liked that Alcott gave us a glimpse of multiple workplaces of 1912 America, and a sense of how different it was from the solid class barriers of the Old Country.

It's very interesting how so much hatred and condemnation landed on the back of one forceful woman, with so many other possible ways to apportion blame (How could the crew be so incompetent? how could they take seats themselves instead of prioritizing passengers? How could men take seats instead of ceding them to women? How many other rich first-class passengers escaped at the expense of the poor? etc.). The deliberate contrast to the backdrop of the suffragist movement is brilliantly executed. When I found Lucille, Pinky and even Tess off-putting, it made me wonder a a bit queasily if I was judging the women pushing for their own careers and success more harshly than I would men in their place. I love novels that make me think about how I react to the characters.

Altogether Alcott's novel is cute, informative and thought-provoking, a difficult mix to achieve. Bravo!


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