Becky Hutchison's Reviews > The Dressmaker's Dowry

The Dressmaker's Dowry by Meredith Jaeger
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bookshelves: contemporary-women

THE DRESSMAKER'S DOWRY, by Meredith Jaeger, is an appealing and unique story of love, survival, and secrets. Set in San Francisco, it alternates between modern times and 1876.

The story begins in the present day and is told in first person, past tense. Sarah Havensworth is a grad student trying to write a novel for her MFA thesis. She's stuck with her story about life in the late 19th century's Barbary Coast and hasn't written anything in several weeks. Not only does she feel like a fraud because she can't finish her book, she's reluctant to let her husband Hunter Havensworth know. He's from a wealthy San Francisco family and has been her greatest supporter, both monetarily and emotionally, while she's been writing. They've been drifting apart, and she's afraid he'll think she's a big disappointment.

While researching her novel, Sarah discovers an article in an 1876 local newspaper referring to the disappearance of two dressmakers. The story intrigues Sarah because a serial killer was in the area at the same time, and she wonders if there's any way to tell if the dressmakers were his victims. So she abandons her soulless novel to write the more compelling dressmakers' story. This portion is set in 1876 and told in the third person, past tense by Hannelore "Hanna" Schaeffer. She's an immigrant from Bavaria, speaks German and English fluently, and is the oldest of four children of a fat, alcoholic, and abusive father. He takes the money she makes from her dressmaking job to drink and eat at taverns, while she and the other children barely scrape by. She and her Irish immigrant friend, Margaret O'Brien, spend long hours sewing for an unpleasant woman and her wealthy customers. One night Margaret is supposed to watch Hanna's siblings but never arrives. Hanna vows to find Margaret and enlists her friend, real estate mogul Lucas Havensworth, to help her.

Both Sarah and Hanna are survivors. They've lived through horrible situations and experienced bullying, deprivation and self-doubt. Though they each find love, they feel they don't deserve it and try to distance themselves from their partners. Sarah and Hanna have secrets too. Deep ones, that if discovered, could make their lives miserable.

As a history and preservation professional, I'm drawn to the research Sarah conducts to gather information for her story. The author uses this info to capture the disparity in living conditions between the wealthy citizens of late 19th century San Francisco and the poor immigrant populations living in unsafe and squalid areas of the city. And her portrayal of how the upper classes treated the other levels of society is reflected in both Sara's time and in 1876.

Pros: The story is definitely unique and well thought out. The plot and subplots interweave fairly well, and the characters are multidimensional and extremely interesting.

Cons: The novel could have been shorter--some passages are a little too long without adding to the story. In many places, the length of the sentences are similar, resulting in a somewhat stilted reading rhythm.

Final Thoughts: THE DRESSMAKER'S DOWRY is a good book for readers who like mysteries and character-driven stories and for people who like a bit of history sprinkled through their fiction. Though it's in the contemporary women genre, it's something I would have wanted to read even in the fifth grade (when I read GONE WITH THE WIND ), so it's suitable for teenagers too.

If You Like This, You Might Like: THE LIFE SHE WAS GIVEN and WHAT SHE LEFT BEHIND by Ellen Marie Wiseman, INTO THE WATER by Paula Hawkins, HER EVERY FEAR by Peter Swanson, THE ISLAND HOUSE by Nancy Thayer, INHERITING EDITH by Zoe Fishman

* Read my other reviews on the Blue Moon Mystery Saloon blog.
** A e-galley was provided by William Morrow/HarpersCollin and Edelweiss for an honest review.
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Reading Progress

February 5, 2017 – Started Reading
February 6, 2017 – Finished Reading
February 7, 2017 – Shelved
February 7, 2017 – Shelved as: contemporary-women

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