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Mary Todd Lincoln #1

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

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In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, novelist Jennifer Chiaverini presents a stunning account of the friendship that blossomed between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley, a former slave who gained her professional reputation in Washington, D.C. by outfitting the city’s elite. Keckley made history by sewing for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln within the White House, a trusted witness to many private moments between the President and his wife, two of the most compelling figures in American history.

In March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln chose Keckley from among a number of applicants to be her personal “modiste,” responsible not only for creating the First Lady’s gowns, but also for dressing Mrs. Lincoln in the beautiful attire Keckley had fashioned. The relationship between the two women quickly evolved, as Keckley was drawn into the intimate life of the Lincoln family, supporting Mary Todd Lincoln in the loss of first her son, and then her husband to the assassination that stunned the nation and the world.

Keckley saved scraps from the dozens of gowns she made for Mrs. Lincoln, eventually piecing together a tribute known as the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt. She also saved memories, which she fashioned into a book, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Upon its publication, Keckley’s memoir created a scandal that compelled Mary Todd Lincoln to sever all ties with her, but in the decades since, Keckley’s story has languished in the archives. In this impeccably researched, engrossing novel, Chiaverini brings history to life in rich, moving style.

356 pages, Hardcover

First published January 15, 2013

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About the author

Jennifer Chiaverini

72 books3,937 followers
Jennifer Chiaverini is the New York Times bestselling author of thirty-three novels, including acclaimed historical fiction and the beloved Elm Creek Quilts series. She has also written seven quilt pattern books inspired by her novels. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin. About her historical fiction, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes, "In addition to simply being fascinating stories, these novels go a long way in capturing the texture of life for women, rich and poor, black and white, in those perilous years."

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,884 reviews
Profile Image for Kassie.
471 reviews18 followers
December 29, 2012
What an excellent subject for a book, but the execution was too dry, too much telling, not enough dialogue and direct character interaction, and too much listing off of Civil War events and leaders. I wanted to get more into the internal thoughts and motivations of Elizabeth and Mrs. Lincoln, but it felt more like reading a textbook than a novel. I felt kept at a distance from the primary focus of the book. Not bad, but not my favorite.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
1,205 reviews17 followers
March 9, 2013
Disclaimer: This review is based on an ARC edition of the novel I received from NetGalley.

Having never read Chiaverini before, I was free of most expectations but one. I thought the story was going to be about Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley. And, while ostensibly she narrates the novel, her personality and experience are almost non-existent.

The novel could rightly have been named "Mrs. Lincoln's Story, as Told by Her Dressmaker". The focus is so much on Mary Lincoln that Elizabeth's story gets subordinated. We're almost always told about her reaction to something that has happened to Mrs. Lincoln, rather than really shown it, but even in scenes where Chiaverini could have taken a bit more license, it feels as if we're reading the somewhat more exciting version of a textbook.

There is a huge focus on detail - battles and backgrounds are explained as if the reader might have little or no familiarity with the war - but so much of this is extraneous to Elizabeth. Instead, we're told how it affected her through the ways that those things affected the Lincolns. I really longed for Elizabeth to have her own story. I wanted to know more about her interactions with her staff, her friends, and those she volunteered with on the contraband committee. For a work of fiction, this one took the least amount of license to portray its lead character.

When Chiaverini emphasizes Mrs. Keckley's story - her son's death, her trip back to the older plantation, her dealings with the publishers of her book - the novel works best. I only wish this was the majority of the very long, long book.
Profile Image for Sue.
6 reviews6 followers
April 26, 2015
Redundant and unnecessary book; most of the content consists of verbatim quoting of Mrs Keckley's memoirs, with no new original research to expand her character. Only the last 10% contains anything different from the memoirs, and it feels rushed and incomplete since the last thirty years of her life are condensed in the retelling. Very disappointing. As I read this book I kept thinking how much stronger the novel would be if it was written from the perspective of one of her apprentices. As it is, with Keckley as the novel's focus vis-a-vis her own memoirs, there are no more insights into her character than what she herself gave. I recommend going straight to the source and reading Keckley's memoir itself out of respect for a woman who was vilified in her time for what she wrote, versus reading this book which in the end profits off of Keckley's writing in a way she herself never could.

ETA: The following blog of Smithsonian Magazine gives more insight into Keckley than this entire book does: http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/threa...
Profile Image for JanB .
1,143 reviews2,500 followers
December 31, 2019
I read this back in October for book club and while I appreciate learning about Elizabeth Keckley and her amazing accomplishments after buying her freedom from slavery, it wasn't enough save the book. The writing style and the insertion of very long passages of the Civil War battles that read like a history textbook made it a slog.

The character of Ms Keckley was written as saintly, with no nuances to her character. I would have liked to have read about the prejudices she endured, yet, based on this book, there were none. It was a lot of telling, very little showing.

I think my time would have been better spent reading Ms Keckley's memoir. I was so bored that would have DNF'd if it had not been a book club selection. However, we had a good discussion, mainly because we all looked up the true story of Elizabeth and Mary Todd Lincoln.
772 reviews3 followers
March 11, 2013
I found it interesting to read the reviews of this book on Goodreads -- many say this book was too dry, and too unlike Jennifer Chiaverini's other books. This is exactly why I liked it. The book was more about history than dress making. And I love reading history books, the more true to history, the better. The first half was almost like watching the movie "Lincoln". This is how I visualized Mrs. Lincoln -- as Sally Fields played her in the movie. I've not read other biographies of Mrs Lincoln, and I don't really care to read more. She sounds like a very unpleasant (and unstable) woman. I figured the book would end with the assassination of President Lincoln, but his death happened about halfway through the book. I didn't know a thing about Mrs. Lincoln's life after President Lincoln died. It was a rather tragic life, and sad to read. But the book is a good read and interesting commentary on race perceptions during this era as well as a fictionalized biography of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Profile Image for The Book Maven.
496 reviews52 followers
October 3, 2013
To me, historical fiction is like a Chinese buffet--for the most part, I will devour it. And sometimes it will be really, really enjoyable; usually it will be satisfying. And every once in a great while, it will leave--not food poisoning, but at the very least a bad taste in my mouth, and a feeling of bloat, and a frustration of "I wasted my calories (time) on this?"

With grody Chinese food, it's usually lo mein noodles. And with historical fiction, it's this book. It has been a very long time since I have encountered historical fiction less riveting and more flat than Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker. It's a shame, because there's such potential in the subject matter: the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, one-time slave Elizabeth Keckley. But what could have been a great story about someone often overlooked by history, filled with historical details and emotional depth and opportunities for dialogue on race, is reduced to a story told passively and flatly, with little dialogue or interestingly-rendered historical details, and which is little more informative than a standard-issue college textbook.

Honestly, for a more satisfying read on similar subject matter, try Barbara Hambly's The Emancipator's Wife--it's far more engrossing, and a much more intelligent and three-dimensional exploration of both Mrs. Lincoln's mental and emotional troubles and her relations with African-Americans, both freed and enslaved.

Profile Image for Sidney Hartley.
21 reviews
April 30, 2013
I loved the idea of the book. But I just didn't feel the characters. I found it quite dull to read. It would have been much better had it focused on Elzabeth's past and then took us to her successful days as a dressmaker.
Profile Image for Briar's Reviews.
1,824 reviews506 followers
May 4, 2023
A while back, I picked up a book by Jennifer Chiaverini. It was charming, sweet, and pretty easy to read. I somehow got the book for free, so I decided when the time was right, I'd buy another book by Jennifer. Time became right when I saw this stunning cover and I knew instantly... this was it.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is a charming, historical read that spins a tale about Mary Todd Lincoln and her friendship with her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley. Lizzie was a slave who gained a reputation for creating beautiful dresses. She worked hard and got herself an incredible job, slowly working her way up the rank to eventually being the seamstress for The First Lady.

This story follows Elizabeth, but crosses a lot of Mrs. Lincoln's life. It's a great tale of what could have been, and the author herself even says a fair bit was made up to tell the story she wanted to tell. While it might not be accurate, it still gave me a lot of interesting thoughts about the era and I've since been doing some research about Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, their family, and their dressmaker. Why not? Isn't that what historical fiction should do? Be enjoyable and encourage us to learn about the history that influenced it?

The book wasn't exactly a home run for me. It was easy to read, but at times it drags n and becomes a little boring. I didn't mind since it was just a read to disappear into, but if I was more motivated... it wouldn't have worked. There is also a LOT of detail in this book, so if you're like me and reading it while you are utterly exhausted... be prepared to have to read sections over because this book is RICH in it's details. It's a real treasure, but not if you were overly exhausted like I was when I read this book.

There is a lot of sad in this book, so reader beware. My heart hurt many a times, but Jennifer Chiaverini crafts it beautifully and makes it a heartfelt story.

Overall, lovely story. I will eventually pick up another book by Jennifer. Any recommendations?

Three out of five stars.
Profile Image for Pat.
415 reviews99 followers
April 9, 2018
Narra la leggenda che prendendo qualche volume di storia, alcune biografie, l’autobiografia (Dietro le quinte) di Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, si possa - copiando un po' qui, un po' lì e incollando tutto su un foglio elettronico intonso - fare un bel “taglia e cuci”.
Il risultato è presto dato e inserito dal New York Times fra i migliori bestseller del 2013.
Così, narra la leggenda.
Messa da parte la leggenda, rimane soltanto qualcosa che s'avvicina alla "pochezza".
Per raggiungere l’apoteosi della succitata pochezza e farla risplendere in tutta la sua magnificenza può essere d’aiuto la traduzione. Cito:

«Ucciso per una bandiera?» chiese Elizabeth senza riflettere. Le pareva uno spreco enorme..."

"...infilò un filo nell'ago e si autorizzò a sperare che la guerra finisse entro l'autunno...".

(Elizabeth con le lettere del figlio appena morto in guerra) "... si concesse di immaginare George ed Emma che si incontravano, si innamoravano, si sposavano, facevano dei figli...".Terribile, tremendo "facevano dei figli", espressione di bruttezza inaudita!

"Elizabeth ebbe le lacrime agli occhi guardando il padre straziato nascondere il viso tra le mani..." Ebbe le lacrime agli occhi. No comment.

"La sarta si rese conto che la presenza di Mrs Edwards portò un immediato sollievo a tutta la famiglia.".

"Con qualche svolazzo di penna, aveva abolito per sempre la schiavitù nella capitale degli Stati Uniti."

"... esclamò con voce brusca, guardandoli con furia tranquilla..."

Se fossi cattiva, direi che del romanzo (fatico a definirlo tale) rimane il ricordo di Mrs Mary Lincoln che non amava molto gli animali, né capiva la passione del marito per le capre, e che (dopo la morte del Presidente) ripiegando la lettera di condoglianze inviatale dalla vedova regina Vittoria dice che la regina è stata fortunata, perché nessuno l'aveva cacciata di casa nel momento in cui era rimasta vedova. (Ciliegina sulla torta a coronare il momento più drammatico - o uno fra i più drammatici - nella vita di una persona).
Di Elizabeth emerge quasi nulla. Forse un’ombra nelle ultime pagine.
Ma sono buona, e non lo dirò.
E ho sprecato tante parole quando potevo sintetizzare: pochezza di tutto. Storicamente povero e privo di passione e sentimenti. Brutto e mal tradotto.

Peccato. Poteva diventare un grande romanzo, la storia di Elizabeth Keckley.
Una stella per la copertina.

P.S. Finito perché avevo promesso di leggerlo. E le promesse si mantengono
Profile Image for Annette.
763 reviews336 followers
November 14, 2019
This is my first book by this author and right away she reminded me of Michelle Moran's first book I've read, Madame Tussaud, which was an engrossing read from the first page. But I'm sorry to say that this book didn't continue to be an interesting read, rather dry for most of the part.

It is a story of an African American woman, who buys her freedom before the Civil War with the money she earns making her first needle creations. She makes her good reputation in D.C. as a dressmaker and becomes Mrs. Lincoln's modiste and close confidante.

At first, the scenes are very vivid, giving a story of the main character and how she sees all the preparation for the Civil War. Despite many details, the picture of freed slaves after signing Emancipation Proclamation is underdeveloped. It lucks intensity with which the book starts.

Once the main character gets hired by Mrs. Lincoln, the story concentrates on Mrs. Lincoln and the Civil War. This part is very dry and reads almost like non-fiction history book.

The very end gets back on truck and concentrates on the main character, but the beginning and the very end are not enough to make it a good read. The main character is not well-developed.
Profile Image for Nathalie.
975 reviews9 followers
April 12, 2013
I've read nearly all of Jennifer Chiaverini's Elm Creek books so I was really looking forward to reading this new one, about Elizabeth Keckley, who was Mary Todd Lincoln's modiste or in other words, her dressmaker. This book did not disappoint. Jennifer has a real talent of bringing history alive. Elizabeth was born into slavery but through sheer hard work and determination, she was able to buy, not only her own freedom, but also the freedom of her son. I was very impressed by her and by her amazing loyalty to Mary Todd Lincoln, who I thought, did not deserve it at times, nay, much of the time. Elizabeth stayed by her side through thick and thin, especially when Mrs. Lincoln nearly went mad with grief with the loss of her young son, Willie. The scene where Abraham Lincoln finally points out to her the insane asylum and tells her she may end up if she doesn't get a grip on herself, which she does, was rather foreboding, as she really ends up in an asylum towards the end of her days. I really didn't know much about the wife of President Lincoln, but I had heard that she was rather a handful and the book proves this right. I was amazed that she managed to amass over $70,000 worth of debt, which is huge now, but would have been even huger then, and over what---dresses, boas, furniture, etc. She was exceedingly foolish in that regard. Poor Elizabeth put up so much with Mary and yet at the end of her days, when she is living in a small basement room and after being treated rather shabbily I thought, she still has a portrait of Mary on her wall. No matter what I think, it is a testament to Elizabeth's undying devotion, loyalty and forgiveness.
Profile Image for Karen A. Wyle.
Author 23 books210 followers
April 15, 2017
This book is called a novel, but it doesn't read like one. I was quite surprised to find, at the end, that the author has written many novels. This is "her first stand-alone work of historical fiction," and it is far more historical than fictional. It's essentially a historical account, sprinkled with occasional dialogue and superficial third person POV. It's almost all "tell," with only the occasional "show." Whatever structural characteristics a novel usually has, this book doesn't. (There are, however, a few reasonably vivid scenes that hint at what the novel could have been.)

As an account of key people and events during and after Lincoln's presidency, it has much to interest anyone who wants to learn more about that period. There are frequent suggestions that Elizabeth Keckley viewed Abraham Lincoln as a quasi-deity, which I found heavy-handed, but these may be historically accurate.

Part of the book's apparent mission, evident in the later chapters, is to rehabilitate Ms. Keckley's reputation -- an intriguing echo of Ms. Keckley's apparent desire to rehabilitate the reputation of her patron and friend, Mary Todd Lincoln.
Profile Image for Mj.
515 reviews69 followers
January 26, 2015
The long and the short of it

The short of it

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker was well written, kept my interest and introduced me to a period of history I knew very little about. For that reason, I am not in a position to comment on its historical authenticity. I found the book well researched and the author, Jennifer Chiaverini, provided an interesting and pretty extensive list of reference materials and books – some of which I hope to read at a later date.

Where I thought the book really shone was in its character development. There were two principals in the story – both women and the author’s descriptions of each elicited strong feelings from me – demonstrating the author’s ability to provide human, in-depth and very much alive very alive character development. It doesn’t get much better and there is the added bonus of a period setting during an important period in North American and Black history.

The writing also sparkles. "She would almost prefer to fold her arms and sink into an eternal slumber, so that the great longing of her soul for peaceful rest would at last be gratified." Page 246

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is an historical fiction well worth reading.

The long of it

I found the most impressive character in the book to be Elizabeth Keckley – Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. She is portrayed as a very self-reliant and formidable woman blessed with creative talents as well as entrepreneurial and business skills. She was also described as a woman of caring character - at most times fair, thoughtful, kind and loyal. She was a former slave who worked hard and saved to pay for her own freedom and the freedom of her son. Despite the fact that her estranged husband provided no support, either monetarily or emotionally for herself or her son, Elizabeth Keckley never spoke ill about him to anyone. Hers was a tough life but she didn’t complain and seemed content. She spent what little free time she had with close friends and in service to others.

The Civil War background permeated the story - north versus south, friends versus friends, and families versus families. As described, the war took huge economic, physical and emotional tolls on both sides. Many lives were lost. Many relationships and buildings were destroyed.

This book however is not a Civil War story. It just took place during this time period. Nor is it a story about Abraham Lincoln. He just happened to be married to one of the principal characters. The primary focus of the book is on the relationship between Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln.

While Elizabeth Keckley is described as Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker, the book suggests she was much more than that. It seems that Elizabeth Keckley was Mrs. Lincoln’s closest confidante and possibly her only friend, although my sense of Mrs. Lincoln was that despite Elizabeth fulfilling all the roles and unselfish acts that a true friend would, Mrs. Lincoln seemed a bit too pre-occupied with herself and her position to actually recognize or acknowledge this. While Mary often speaks kindly and sends positive notes to Elizabeth saying – you’re the “only” one I can talk too, you’re the “only” one who has stood by me etc., I don’t recollect Mrs. Lincoln ever once using the “f” word as in “friend.”

Of the two women, I quite preferred Elizabeth Keckley. You can chalk it up to my biases or whatever you wish. I do feel a great deal of empathy for a woman in the role of presidential wife and mother, particularly one who seemed to be in a marriage with an absentee physical and emotional husband and father. I also recognize that this added a lot of strain to Mrs. Lincoln’s life and that she seemed to be living like a widow, long before her husband was fatally shot. Additionally, the author presents Mary Todd Lincoln as a fairly fragile and emotional woman. Despite, taking all of the above into account, I absolutely could not connect with Mary Todd Lincoln.

I found her to be self-centred, whiny, demanding and so bereft of self-esteem that it was painful. Her shopping sprees and extravagances only reinforced this impression. I don’t doubt that she felt she was protecting and advancing her husband’s causes. I also sensed that she was truly dedicated to whatever would be the best for her husband and her sons, and would commit to helping them no matter what personal sacrifices were required. Nonetheless, in the continuum of things, my overall impression based on the author’s story was that Mary Todd Lincoln was unfortunately very shallow and interested primarily in appearances, overly fragile to the point of veering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and unfortunately suffering emotionally from lack of attention from her husband and lack of self-esteem and isolation. I sensed from her mood swings and spending sprees, and frequent very high highs and extremely low lows that she perhaps was exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trashing Mary Todd Lincoln. Her strong love of her husband and family were evident but often bordering on ethereal love versus demonstrable love by doing. Mrs. Lincoln seems to have been someone who very often lived in her mind and imagination and seemed prone to paranoia. She seemed to really lack grounding. That is perhaps why she relied so heavily on Elizabeth Keckley whose nature was almost the exact opposite – a grounded, let’s get started doing things and let’s get them done kind of a person.

I found the story of the two women’s relationship to be fascinating. It was almost like they were co-dependant. Mary Todd Lincoln couldn’t or perhaps more accurately, wouldn’t stand up on her own two feet and Elizabeth Keckley couldn’t or wouldn’t leave Mary Todd Lincoln when it seemed to be in her own best interest to do so.

There are also examples and discussion in the book about systemic racism, fairness and not judging a book by its cover or people by the colour of their skin. “Then it occurred to her (Elizabeth Keckley) that if Tad (Lincoln’s son) had been a colored boy rather than the son of a president, and a teacher had found him so difficult to instruct, he would have been ridiculed as a dunce and held up as evidence of the inferiority of the entire race. Tad was bright; Elizabeth knew that well, and she was sure that with proper instruction and hard work, a glimmer of his father’s genius would show in him too. But Elizabeth knew many black boys Tad’s age who could read and write beautifully, and yet the myth of inferiority persisted. The unfairness of the assumptions stung. If a white child appeared dull, the entire race was deemed unintelligent. It seemed to Elizabeth that if one race should not judged by a single example, then neither should any other.” Page 249

If you enjoy historical fiction and character development and are at all interested in the American Civil War or Black History, give Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker a try. Be forewarned however that this is primarily a story about the relationship of two women rather than The American Civil War and Black History.
Profile Image for Malia.
Author 6 books551 followers
August 28, 2017
Had to give up, sorry to say! Chiaverini obviously did her research, unfortunately, there is little in terms of original story going on, at least up to the point I have reached. Not for me, I'm afraid.

Find more reviews and bookish fun at http://www.princessandpen.com
Profile Image for Lois .
1,757 reviews466 followers
September 14, 2018
Well researched and it shows in the novel. Unfortunately it was drier reading than Keckley's actual autobiography. 2.5 stars rounded up
188 reviews100 followers
May 2, 2017
Wow! This was a very well-researched book. The characters were also well-written. I would recommend this book. It was so interesting to learn the details of the Civil War. I also tend to enjoy reading books with strong, female heroines. It is still hard for me to grasp all the struggles that slaves and Africa-Americans went through during those times.
141 reviews
April 16, 2013
I found the book to be disappointing. I was expecting to hear the details of the former slave who was closest to the Lincoln family during their turbulent years in the white house. What I got was a mostly about Mrs Lincoln and the Civil War than about the life of Elizabeth Keckley. I would assume that a woman with the talent and ability to purchase freedom for herself and her son, would not have allowed her life to be wind up in shambles supporting Mrs Lincoln's whims instead of attending to her own survival.

There are large sections of the book that drone on about the details of the Civil War, at least a third of the book, that tended to make reading rather dry. Troop movements and battles were discussed in too much detail. I don't think it was necessary to insert so many details about the generals' movements and actions in a book of this nature; more vague statements regarding the fact that the war wasn't going well for the Union would have sufficed.

The writing was a bit stilted there was very little naturalness to the narrative.
Profile Image for Graham Crawford.
443 reviews42 followers
April 11, 2013
I just finished Gore Vidal's Lincoln a few weeks ago and wanted to read more about the fascinating Mrs Keckley. Alas "Mrs Lincoln's Dressmaker" was the wrong book for me. From the first page I could see the writing was not just simple (simple can work well in a mythic way), it was simplistic. Normally I would not waste my time writing a review for hack pulp like this, but I persevered with this book and my irritation turned to loathing. Mrs Keckley's story is an important one, and someone still needs to write the novel about her life that will do her justice.

As an Australian working for an Indigenous community support centre, I am probably more sensitive to instances of cultural appropriation than most, though i must say it's pretty unlikely a novel about a black woman written by a middle class white chick would get printed in my country (now days at least). There are some stories where the primary voice should be left to be told by community members. That doesn't mean you can't tell tales about other cultures - you just can't assume the voice of that culture. Compare Geraldine Brooks' "Caleb's Crossing" with Chiaverini's blotched job. Brooks invents a white female narrator to tell the story of the first indigenous American to graduate from Harvard. Chiaverini's Mrs Keckley never speaks in an authentic voice, a dramatic failure of the text stemming from it's politically incorrect appropriation.

I don't think this is malicious on the part of Chiaverini, I think it's just hugely naive a naiveity she more than displays in her blithe acceptance of the standard Lincoln haliography, Lincoln as Saint Moses. Most of this book is a dull regurgitation of events, with little or no analysis, and hardly any character insights into the major players. Indeed one can go over a page without running into an adjective or adverb. I'm pretty sure I didn't spot any metaphors or similes in there either. This book is so strangely colourless I really struggle to understand just why Chiaverini felt compelled to turn the story into a "historical fiction". As other Goodreads reviewers have pointed out, all this material is available in the original autobiography, and the excellent modern biographies on Keckley. To be honest, all the info in this book is available on Wikipedia. Maybe Chiaverini wanted to avoid "inventing" anything. If that's the case, she's missed the point of why people write historical fictions in the first place (or fictional histories in the case of Gore Vidal). I honestly think she's taken this path to avoid having to do any real research. She's just another lazy stupid writer loved by millions on the best seller lists.

OK - why am I getting so worked up about a text with so little merit? Well, it's because I was really looking forward to some sharp insight into Elizabeth Keckley. How did she really manage to control the uncontrollable little Missy Mary? Who was exploiting who? And of course some deeper probing into the Lincoln family relationships,the murky politics and race relations of that period.

Imagine a book filled with domestic descriptions of the every day (a real woman's perspective). Who made Kate Chases' dresses? (and was she a rival of Keckley's?).And much much more about the sewing, the style, the fashion and all the bitchy girl talk in the boudoir. And what about the shopping -where was my pivotal mall frenzy scene? I still want to read that book. I'll never read another Chiaverini that' s for sure!
Profile Image for LORI CASWELL.
2,413 reviews272 followers
January 16, 2016
This story tells of the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley. Lizzie, a slave who bought the way out of slavery for both herself and her son did so using her sewing talents. She went on to sew for some of the elite woman in Washington D.C. When Mrs. Lincoln moved to The White House she chose Lizzie over many applicants to be her her personal “modiste,” responsible not only for creating the First Lady’s gowns, but also for dressing Mrs. Lincoln in the beautiful attire she created for the first lady. Their friendship quickly evolved and she became part of the fabric of the Lincoln White House. She was there to see Mary through the loss of her son and the assassination of her husband.

Dollycas’s Thoughts
Chiaverini has written an in depth look at an important time in history from the women’s point of view as only she can. It is well researched and flows smoothly into the reader’s heart and mind. This being her first novel away from her characters in the Elm Creek Series there were a bit of growing pains in places. She is writing about real people and tries to keep all the facts straight even though the book is fiction which can be extremely difficult. Readers should know this is not a quilting or a quilter’s story but Lizzie does create a quilt from the scraps leftover from her creations for Mrs. Lincoln. This is a very small part of this novel.

The author has a reputation of writing strong woman and Elizabeth Keckley is one strong woman. She definitely went above and beyond for Mrs. Lincoln. Chiaverini has captured her excellently and it is easy to forget Lizzie was a real person. Her insight into Mary Todd Lincoln was enlightening as well. Reading stories like this one are superb ways to learn more about the people the history texts forget about or only mention in passing.

This book is everything I expect a Jennifer Chiaverini novel. Wonderful characters in a fascinating time and exciting places. Fans of historical fiction will absolutely love this book. I sure did!! I can’t wait to read her next novel due out in October. The Spymistress features Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union loyalist who was a spy for General Grant.
Profile Image for Kathy Pratt.
5 reviews1 follower
June 6, 2014
I'm conflicted about writing a one star review. I'm an author, though none of my books are on the bestseller list. Still, I know how difficult writing can be and I appreciate all the effort that goes into writing a book. In the past, I haven't written bad reviews even when I didn't care for a book. My criticism isn't about how well the book is written, or about it being a good story. I'd rate it higher on both those counts. My criticism is because I feel that Ms. Chiaverini basically plagiarized the vast majority of the book. It was taken verbatim from Elizabeth Keckley's own autobiography and it wasn't until the end of Ms. Ciaverini's book that she finally fictionalized part of it. I do realize that Elizabeth Keckley's book is now in the public domain, so it's up for grabs. But, that doesn't mean that it is morally right to use her book and call it your own. Elizabeth Keckley was used most of her life by those around her, and when she wrote her book she didn't earn anything from it. In fact, it cost her her friendship with Mrs. Lincoln. Now, she's being used again. I'm really surprised that Oprah chose this book for her book club. She should have chosen Mrs. Keckley's book instead. Now Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is on the bestseller list and Ms. Chiaverini is making plenty of money from it, I'm sure. I certainly hope she's donating some of her profits towards those who need it.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,733 reviews14.1k followers
January 14, 2013
3.5 Just recently saw the movie, "Lincoln" which I felt was superb and Mrs. Keckley was actually part of the movie. This is one of my favorite periods in US history, as I am sure it is many others and I enjoyed much of this book. Loved the fact that she was accepted in many of the great houses of the time and overheard so much gossip, including that of the Davis's right after the succession of South Carolina. This part of the book was very interesting, made the seamstress and her character, come to life for the reader. The second half, not so much, think she lost the feel and focus for her character, or maybe the information wasn't as plentiful. Whatever the reason, I feel that the book would have been better had it ended after Lincoln's assassination. It is a worthwhile read and most Lincoln fans won't be disappointed. ARC from publisher.
Profile Image for Heidi.
1,395 reviews153 followers
January 15, 2013
Three and a half stars: An interesting peek into the lives of two very different historical women.

Life hasn't always been easy for Elizabeth Keckley. She is a former slave who managed to buy her freedom and her son's as well. She is middle aged, estranged from her husband and building a dressmaking business in Washington D.C. Despite her difficulties, she endeavors to work hard and make the most of her opportunities. Her skills with the needle have landed her some prestigious clients, including Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis. Her reputation grows and eventually she lands an interview with none other than the First Lady. Mary Lincoln hires her even though she is the only colored woman applying. This is the beginning of a long term relationship between these two extraordinary women. When Elizabeth takes on the job to be Mrs. Lincoln's personal dressmaker, she has no idea how it will change her life. She not only diligently sews the finest gowns for Mrs. Lincoln, but she also becomes a personal friend and confidant to the family. Elizabeth spends endless hours at the White House interacting with the Lincoln's. She nurses the children, dresses Mary and even combs Mr. Lincoln's hair before important engagements. She has come a long way from her humble beginnings as a slave. This is the account of Elizabeth's relationship with Mrs. Lincoln and the story of her life. She was an amazing woman who led an impressive life.

What I Liked:
*I am always drawn to books set in the Civil War Era, but I admit, I tend to read more about the Confederacy and the subsequent death of the Old South. I am a bit unfamiliar with Mrs. Lincoln, and the few things I do know about her aren't the most flattering. This book is a revealing account of Mrs. Lincoln's time in the White House and what happened to her after her husband's untimely death. Told through the eyes of a loyal friend, this book attempts to paint Mrs. Lincoln in a more flattering light, but in the end she led a turbulent life and she made many unfortunate mistakes. Mary Lincoln faced many troubles and burdens, but her difficulties were not any more harsh than that other women of the time were facing. In the end, I felt somewhat sorry for her, as I realized that she was married to a man who was a martyr, and he certainly set an impossibly high standard for her to measure up against. If you are curious about Mrs. Lincoln, I would definitely recommend this book.
*I had never heard of Elizabeth Keckley before picking up this account. She is an impressive woman, who found the courage and means to buy her freedom. Elizabeth was able to establish a successful dressmaking business as a colored woman in a time of great turbulence and racism. Her skills set her apart, and she was soon crafting gowns for the elite women of the day. Not only was Elizabeth an accompished seamstress, she was also a generous advocate for her race. I finished this book with a new appreciation for women in her plight. Elizabeth Keckley was a humble, remarkable and amazing woman. I certainly admire her. I would highly recommend this book to those of you interested in slavery and African American history.
*I liked that the main focus of this book was during the Civil Way years. Mrs. Keckley gave her first hand account of the Lincolns behind the scenes. It was touching and revealing at the same time. How my heart ached for President Lincoln as he dealt with the heavy burdens of war and the death of his young son. This novel once again reminds us of the great losses during the war. It is a troublesome, yet fascinating time in American History. If you have any interest in the Civil War era, especially of the women of the era, read this book. I liked that it was told from the perspective of an African American woman. I learned so much about the difficulties they faced, the prejudice they fought against and the struggle they had to free their race from slavery.

And The Not So Much:
*I was a bit perplexed and disappointed that this book hardly covered Mrs. Keckley's life during her slave years. There is very little detail and discussion on this period in her life. Instead this book opens in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War when Elizabeth is middle aged and employed by Varina Davis. While I can understand why Ms. Chiaverni chose to put the main focus on the Civil War Era, I couldn't help but feel a bit cheated that there wasn't an account of her slave years, and how she bought her freedom. Especially since this was the formative years of her life.
*I loved that the focus of this book was on the Civil War, and I admit that my attention waned a bit the last part of the book. Once Mr. Lincoln is assassinated and the war ends, the book's pace falters. The last portion focuses on Mary Lincoln's troubles after she leaves the White House. Mrs. Lincoln is in serious debt, she racked up a horrendous amount of debt while in the White House, unbeknownst to her husband, the amount is shocking even by today's standards. Elizabeth, the ever loyal friend, tries to help her sell her belongings to make ends meet, and ends up in a sticky situation as she publishes her personal memoirs. The book ultimately estranges her from the Lincoln family. Thus, Mrs. Lincoln's final years are unbeknownst to Elizabeth, which was a disappointment since I would like to know more about how she ended up in the asylum. The considerable amount of time spent discussing the failed wardrobe selling dragged on and on and I lost interest.
*I longed to have a bit more details on the dressmaking. I was hoping to learn a bit more about how dresses during this era were crafted. Sewing machines were invented, but it was never clear whether Elizabeth ever used one or if she always sewed everything by hand. Furthermore, I would have liked to know how a seamstress went about piecing together one of those voluminous gowns, the length of time it took to make one, and how much a dress sold for during this time period. The details on sewing are very scant. I guess I was expecting more on this topic considering it is the account of a dressmaker.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is an eye opening account of Mary Todd Lincoln told by one of her most trusted friends. This book attempts to portray Mrs. Lincoln in a more positive light, but due to her many mistakes she comes across as flawed and unable to measure up to her esteemed husband. The horrors of the Civil War are front and center, along with the struggles of the African American race as they obtained their freedom and fought to find their way in the world after they escaped slavery. If you are interested in this time period, this is certainly a revealing story of an amazing woman of African American heritage who made a name for herself in this most difficult time period. I was certainly inspired by Elizabeth Keckley, and I am glad that I read this book.

Favorite Quotations:
"But even if he had placed his hand on a Bible and declared himself a staunch abolitionist, her few months in Washington had taught her that candidates often made promises that they found impossible to keep after taking office."
"If one is going to write the life of another," Elizabeth said aloud, rising from her chair with the newspaper still clutched in her hand, "one should always, always write the truth. Anything else is a waste of paper and ink and words."
"As the lowest among them fared, so everyone of their race would be perceived, and thus for their own sakes it was essential to forgo snobbery and raise up all colored people."
"After a lifetime of dependence, they know nothing else, and the worries and cares of poverty had given them a harsh introduction to freedom."
"If your hose is on fire, and a black man offers you a bucket of water, do you refuse it? If you are drowning, and a black man reaches out to haul you to shore, do you tread water and hope a white man happens by before you go under, or do you seize that dusky limb and live?"
"He talked about the Lord too, and how strange it is that each side prays to the same God and invokes His aid against the other."
"If a white child appeared dull, he and he alone was thought to suffer from a lack of intelligence or a deficient education, but if a colored boy appeared dull, the entire race was deemed unintelligent."

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and I was not compensated for this review.
Posted @Rainy Day Ramblings.
Profile Image for Orsolya.
608 reviews287 followers
February 6, 2013
I have quite a fascination with Mary Todd Lincoln (I even have a shelf dedicated to her) and by default, have read about Elizabeth Keckley. One can imagine my excitement when Jennifer Chiaverini announced her stand-alone historical fiction novel, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” depicting the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth from “Lizzie’s” point of view.

“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” immediately dives into the storytelling of Elizabeth Keckley and the Civil Warm era in the US. One doesn’t have to be completely versed on the topic, as Chiaverini has clearly conducted in-depth research, thus bringing the period to life. Her descriptions are vivid, clear, and told with a mature and yet accessible prose. Not to mention, the story (and dialogues) feel authentic and not too modern making “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” more history than fiction (which is what I personally prefer).

The pace in “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” has a steady beat and moves the plot swiftly; however, sometimes it is too vague and fast. Moments which could have left a stronger impact if explored were merely gazed upon and resulted in unanswered questions. Some passages are a little silly and too predictable but these aren’t overly abundant and do not weaken the overall tale (for example: one paragraph talks about Elizabeth’s joy at receiving letters from her soldier son while the next is a letter announcing her son’s death).

Elizabeth’s characterization is solid in terms of being able to hold the story; however, the theme of the novel (the relationship between the two women) is somewhat lost as Elizabeth’s true feelings and psyche are nowhere to be found in the shuffle. Although “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” aims to tell Elizabeth’s story, she is weak in terms of opening up her views. She almost feels like a side note and not developed. For instance, Elizabeth makes claims how Mary is her friend and she would die for her but there are merely words as the relationship is never truly expressed. Mary is also a feeble character and sort of sprawled out in comparison to her portrayal in other novels.

“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” is choppy and uneven in regards to excitement. Again, subject-wise, it would best appeal to history buffs as it focuses more on that versus fictional drama and thus, may be “dry” to some readers. “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” may not be exactly what all readers expect as the Civil War is more explored (but is quite compelling) than Elizabeth’s character or her relationship with Mary.

Chiaverini does illicit a strong and almost teary reaction upon the climax (Lincoln’s assignation); however, like the rest of the novel, it doesn’t involve Elizabeth directly. When Elizabeth does try to create a response, it always feels forced and involves a comment about her race which is never related to the events at hand and is “thrown in there”.

The end of “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” is surprisingly strong and finally reveals Elizabeth, her feelings, and her personality. Sadly, it takes the entire novel to do so. The end also features a silly attempt of Chiaverini’s to include herself (meaning Chiaverini) in the novel which is not necessary and is odd (you must see for yourself what I am alluding to). Historically, the work is quite accurate although the author’s notes are vague and could have used more elaboration (although Chiaverini does mention books for further reading).

In terms of fiction, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” is a solid 3 rating. However, for history buffs and Mary Lincoln fans (this novel is a great introduction to Mary); the novel receives a 4 and is therefore dependent on the reader’s subjective view.

Off topic, but for some reason, I couldn’t stop picturing Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln in the novel…
Profile Image for Kate.
314 reviews3 followers
January 31, 2013
While this book was a perfectly pleasant read, it lacked a certain amount of power that kept me up and reading until the wee hours of the morning. Instead of a historical fiction revealing the intimacy between Mrs. Lincoln and her dressmaker, Mrs. Keckley, the reader simply gets another side of Mrs. Lincoln and her extraordinarily difficult life.

It took some patience to work my way through this book. While Chiaverini paints a charming portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, the "main" character Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley, hardworking woman who bought her freedom from slavery, is sadly left as a blank slate that at the beginning held an abundance of potential. Elizabeth is but a vessel for the story of Mrs. Lincoln's sorrows, she has no real story of her own developed in this book. We learn about her life, but we don't get to truly experience her life.

The book was worth the read for the historical facts interspersed, and the knowledge of Mrs. Keckley and her relationship to Mrs. Lincoln, but on the whole, it left me wanting a more personal story of the devoted Mrs. Keckley.
Profile Image for Tori.
4 reviews55 followers
February 24, 2018
Was very disappointed by this book. It was too focused on being “factual” and accurately depicting the events surrounding the Lincoln administration/Civil War era, embellished with some dialogue. I was expecting more of a narrative/inside look at the life of Elizabeth Keckley, that would be fictionalized to some degree. This book did not stray from fact, but that also had the effect of making the book read more like a political biography than a piece of historical fiction shaped around real people and events.
Profile Image for BookishStitcher.
1,101 reviews46 followers
May 13, 2018
2.5 stars

This was just okay for me. I think it is because I would have rather read a biography on Mrs. Lincoln or Elizabeth Keckley instead of a fictionalized account. I keep finding myself wondering which things are true and which are simply embellished for the novel. So I'm doing a lot of extra research that would probably be included in a non-fiction book on the women.
Profile Image for Rebecca Wright.
1 review3 followers
October 20, 2013
Having just read Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley, I thought I would enjoy a novel version of the autobiography. Imagine my surprise when I saw Keckley's own words on the pages of this book. I notice that many reviewers are commenting on how dry the book is or how it's not like any of the author's other books. It's because it's not! This is a retelling of Keckley's own book, almost verbatim in some areas and copied/pasted in others.

As a graduate student, I take plagiarism very seriously and even though Keckley's book is in public domain, I've been taught that any new work that is clearly adapted from a previous work needs to give the original author recognition. With so much copy and pasting going on in Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, I would expect the cover to say "by Jennifer Chiaverini, adapted from 'Behind the Scenes' by Elizabeth Keckley." It does not. This author only recognizes the original work in her note of thanks in the back of the book, in a four line paragraph after she's already listed her other references, and thanked all these other people who helped her. Personally, if I used so much of another author's book, I'd probably thank them first - but then, I'd also probably do this at the front of the book before claiming their work as my own.

I will note that Chiaverini did insert her own musings of Keckley's thoughts on her book being published but she used Keckley's words from Keckley's book. It seems strange to me that a person saying that the words had been twisted in publishing would use those published words to represent the character's speech an adapted novel.

I thought about giving this book another star for the research done past the publishing of Keckley's book, which you cannot get with the original. Having read this, however, I'm sorry that I spent $16 on it which I could have simply reread Keckley's book which I already own - AND would recommend over this book. It seriously makes me cringe when I read applause for how this book "vividly imagines how the Civil War touched daily life in Washington" (Washingtonian - on the Praise Page of the book) when it wasn't imagined so much as borrowed from a memoir of someone who actually lived the life represented. Elizabeth Keckley is a wonderful person to read about - do it in her own words.
Profile Image for Book Concierge.
2,768 reviews333 followers
February 6, 2017
Book on CD narrated by Christina Moore

Elizabeth Keckley was a free Negro whose skill as a seamstress brought her to the attention of Washington D.C.’s leading ladies, including Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. Chiaverini’s novel tells Elizabeth’s story.

This was an interesting look at an era in history that we already know much about. I enjoyed the historical references and Elizabeth’s point of view of many of the events. It was an engaging story that held my interest. But …

I wish Chiaverini had given us more of Elizabeth in the novel and less of Mrs Lincoln. I would have liked to read more about Elizabeth’s early years as a slave, how she came to buy her freedom and that of her son, and how she came to start her business in Washington. As it is, the novel opens with Elizabeth already a successful businesswoman, and about to be introduced to Mrs Lincoln. Chiaverini references her history of slavery, but never fully explains it.

Christina Moore does a fine job narrating the audio version of this book. She has good pacing, and a fluid delivery. I was never confused about who was speaking, despite the many female characters.
Profile Image for Kathrina.
508 reviews127 followers
December 23, 2015
I dutifully read the first 100 pages in an attempt to keep up with my ladies' book group. Like many other reviewers here, I felt the telling of Keckley's experience in the White House rather benign and derivative. But I was determined to finish the book, and I was pleasantly surprised. Halfway through, (spoiler alert: Lincoln does not outlive his presidency, an event that is curiously and frequently foreshadowed in this narrative, as if it is an unexpected climax) the novel departs from Civil War historia and an unnecessary re-visioning of Keckley's own memoir into a fascinating and tragic account of Mrs. Lincoln's widowhood and Keckley's last decades as her business manager, an author, and a college professor. While I'm sure there are more detailed (and accurate) biographies out there, Chiaverini's fictionalization of Keckley's story was an unexpected pleasure in a novel I 'd not had high hopes for. This book has encouraged my interest in reading Keckley's original manuscript.
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