Review: The Dressmaker — Kate Alcott

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To Go: 69

Book List:
31. The Dressmaker — Kate Alcott

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Finished reading: June 8, 2013

Since I have a relatively uncomplicated work-week, I thought I’d take some time to play more review catch-up. The next on the list is The Dressmaker, which I read almost a full two months ago (that feels wholly unbelievable to me). It was one of those books that I got for Christmas, put on my shelf, and forgot about for a while. But after reading A Lion Among Men, I needed something a little easier to read, and went with The Dressmaker. A fine choice, indeed!

In The Dressmaker, aspiring seamstress Tess is thrilled when she is hired on as the maid of Lucile Duff Gordon, an English fashion designer who is as famous for her temperament as she is for her lush dresses. The two, along with Lucile’s husband, board the maiden voyage of the Titanic, where luxury awaits. As Tess is drawn into Lucile’s world, she catches the eye of two men: a suave Chicago businessman, and a kind sailor. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes. Amidst the chaos, Tess is one of the last to get a spot on the lifeboats, and her sailor also escapes, witness to the Duff Gordons’ questionable actions in their nearly-empty lifeboat.

When the survivors reach New York, rumours start to circulate, and Lucile quickly becomes the subject of media scrutiny, and then is asked to appear at the Titanic hearings. And Tess finds herself caught in the middle, forced to make a choice about what—and who—she believes.

The Dressmaker is rich with historical detail, and its focus on the Titanic hearings, which pit the word of Tess’s sailor, Jim, against the formidable Duff Gordons, keeps the pages turning. I sped through it in a day, desperate to see whether Lucile would admit to her part in what transpired in her lifeboat, and how Tess’s loyalties to her employer would be tested.

But the true strength of The Dressmaker is in its complex female characters. Lucile may be cruel, but she knows what it means to come from poverty and make something of herself. Tess, in the throes of new love, refuses to compromise her dreams of designing clothing for a life as a housewife. And Pinky, a diligent New York Times reporter covering the hearings, demands a raise from her boss that will put her above her male colleagues, at the time a daring and likely unprecedented move.  They’re characters you can sympathize with and root for—even Lucile.

Next book: Spin — Catherine McKenzie

– Kelsey

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