Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Dressmaker review

Up for review this month is a piece of historical fiction that I read recently - The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott. The premise of it was good. A young girl, Tess, who works as a seamstress, manages to hitch a last minute ride of the legendary Titanic. The person sponsoring her passage is none other than Lady Lucile Duff-Gordon, dress designer extraordinaire. In the wake of the Titanic's disastrous encounter with an iceberg, the story follows the characters through the days after the sinking and rescue to the U.S. inquiry that delved into how the accident happened.
This short synopsis follows the summary on the inner cover and while it managed to intrigue me, the actual book itself was a far bigger disappointment.

My first gripe with the book is this takes place in about 1912 and it's about a seamstress, but it looks like the dress on the cover might be a Victorian period bodice, and a very ill-fitting one at that. Well, you can't judge a book by it's cover. So I ignored it for the time being and jumped into reading it.

The first few chapters focused on how Tess manages to get aboard the Titanic then the ensuing disaster. While there is some character development for her and Lucile, it just doesn't go deep enough for the reader to really understand the characters completely.

Tess comes off as a naive and with little knowledge of her way in the world. For a maid/seamstress, she comes across as very unintelligent where the employer and hired service hierarchy works. While the 1910s was a time for a change within this structure, Tess' actual character seems more in sync with an interpretation of how modern person views someone in this historical setting. Nothing with her character just ever seemed to sit right and I just never felt like I could sympathize with her.

Lucile was another matter entirely. Because of the lack of character depth, she kept coming off as a bipolar control freak. On one page, you could find yourself liking her, three pages later, I wanted to reach through the book and strangle her. And it happened over and over again.

While this is a piece of fiction, the way the historical aspects were integrated made it feel like it was poorly researched. The book itself felt rushed as well. Events that transpired within the 3-4 weeks covered in the material feel like they could have spanned a greater period of time and thus allowed for more details to be given. Of course finessing those details would have been hard to do given the number of topics the author tried to include.

The Titanic sinking, the Titanic trial, Lucile Duff-Gordon and couture design. These are the subjects Alcott should have stuck to to make a stronger story. Especially the trial since there seem to be few pieces of fiction out there that narrow in on this. Instead, she throws in women's suffrage, equal pay between men and women, politics, ideas on rising socialism and labor laws, and a which-man-do-I-pick romance.  As a whole, it makes for a disjointed story that, again, has little character dimension.

It was even disappointing from the sewing standpoint. Tess does spend time at Lucile's New York City design loft, but nothing much happens outside of Tess running her hands over fine pieces of fabric and doing a little bit of sewing here and there. Alcott may have included a large couture fashion name in her book, but she fails miserably to use it as an opportunity to allow the reader to learn more about what could be an interesting topic.

I may have finished this book, but I did begrudgingly. I didn't absolutely hate it (I would have stopped reading if I did), but I didn't like it either. As soon as I was finished, it went straight into "donation" book pile and I can certainly say I won't be recommending it to anyone. There's definitely better books out there.

Review - 1.5 out of 5

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