Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Group Review: The Dressmaker

Summary: Just in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic comes a vivid, romantic, and relentlessly compelling historical novel about a spirited young woman who survives the disaster only to find herself embroiled in the media frenzy left in the wake of the tragedy.

Tess, an aspiring seamstress, thinks she's had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired by famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon to be a personal maid on the Titanic's doomed voyage. Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men, one a roughly-hewn but kind sailor and the other an enigmatic Chicago millionaire. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes.

Amidst the chaos and desperate urging of two very different suitors, Tess is one of the last people allowed on a lifeboat. Tess’s sailor also manages to survive unharmed, witness to Lady Duff Gordon’s questionable actions during the tragedy. Others—including the gallant Midwestern tycoon—are not so lucky.

on dry land, rumors about the survivors begin to circulate, and Lady Duff Gordon quickly becomes the subject of media scorn and later, the hearings on the Titanic. Set against a historical tragedy but told from a completely fresh angle, The Dressmaker is an atmospheric delight filled with all the period's glitz and glamour, all the raw feelings of a national tragedy and all the contradictory emotions of young love. ~product description

Alice's Review:  So far this year I have read many novels.  The Dressmaker is hands down my favorite 2012 read.  There is something so wonderful about this story.  It encompasses hope, inspiration and courage at one of the most tragic times in maritime history.  The reason this novel intrigued me at first had nothing to do with the Titanic, and everything to do with my mother being a dressmaker.  She learned to sew as a child in Portugal.  To this day, sewing is still her passion.  Sadly, her passion didn’t rub off on my sister, brother and me.  I love watching her work, to create a beautiful garment from a bolt of flat fabric.  It’s magical.  And like my mom’s sewing, this novel is magical too.

It was easy for me to get wrapped up in the characters very quickly.  I found courage and resolve in Tess; passion and desire to succeed in Jim; spirit and moxie in Pinky who was by far my favorite character.  Come to think of it, all the characters encompassed all these qualities but at different levels.  Ms. Alcott did a great job of developing realistic traits in all her characters, even in someone like our villainess Lucile.  There was a great poise to her that made me love to hate her.  I took the emotional journey with Tess through their relationship.  In the end, I came to the same conclusion as Tess.  Maybe it is because it took place during an actual event that made the characters more convincing.  Whatever it was, I had to remind myself that this novel was a work of fiction based on actual events.

Although I enjoyed the prospect of love for Tess, I’m glad it wasn’t the center of this novel.  I do love what Tess said when she made her choice.  She left one suitor with this:  “I don’t feel what I want to feel.”    It’s a wonderful truth, and one that took a lot of courage to say. 

This novel flows skillfully and is a quick read.  I was engrossed in the story from the start.  Although there is a lot going on (witness testimony, Lucile’s sewing loft, Pinky’s reporter job), I never felt lost or confused.  The individual stories fused together seamlessly. 

I realize that my final take is a slight contradiction to my review.  The reason I did not give it a five is that I honestly think it didn’t deserve it.  It came very close, but I think it’s unfair to give a five simply because of how much I loved it.  The Dressmaker lacked a certain level of polish.  I think the flaw was in the dialogue between the characters.  Sometimes it was spot-on and perfect, other times it was forced.  Overall, this novel is a must read for anyone who is a Titanic buff, enjoys historical fiction, or roots for the underdog.

Final Take: 4/5

Jenn's Review:  I don't read a lot of historical fiction, not because I don't like it, but more because I've attempted some that were just too unwieldy. Plus I find myself more comfortable about reading about times and events in history that I'm fairly familiar with so that I can be sure that there are facts supporting the fiction.  (What can you expect?  I come from a long line of history buffs and married a social studies teacher!) I'll admit I was leery of The Dressmaker. There are so many Titanic related books out there and so few of them are good... or even close to accurate.

I found Kate Alcott's focus on the aftermath refreshing.  There is much  to be said about the aftermath of his tragedy that rocked the Western hemisphere.   It was a period in America marked with progress and that certain invincibility that comes with boundless opportunity.  Although Ms. Alcott barely scratches the surface of the despicable dealings of the White Star Line with the inquest.  She focuses mainly upon Ismay who was culpable and contemptible in his own right but chooses to skim over their many other injustices.   (Did you know that the bereaved families of the musicians were charged for their unreturned uniforms?!?)  But the story she chooses to tell is an interesting one.  Can you assign blame?  When faced with tragedy on that scale are your actions heroic, cowardly, unnecessarily risky, or downright selfish?  

I was glad to see references made to the stories I knew, and glad she chose to include certain unavoidable characters. I would have loved to have seen more of Margaret Brown in the story... And perhaps some of Lady Astor, but I digress. I love that she used actual transcripts form the hearings, with some minor exceptions, and that she captured the scope of the survivors guilt and, in some cases, unabashed defiance. 

I can honestly say that I never fully understood Lady Duff Gordon. Though she was a real survivor, she never really came together for me as a character.  Ms. Alcott gave her plenty of back story, being self-made and  suffering many hardships, but I just couldn't grasp her.  Perhaps it's the fine line between genius and insanity, but Madame Lucille definitely came off as slightly deranged. I understand Tess' loyalty and her conflicted convictions when it came to her employer.  Though I enjoyed the character of  Pinky, I was never sure where she stood, especially on the subject of Jim.  Next to 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown', I think Elinor was probably the character that I liked best. As for the romance, it seemed to be forced human interest; the Jack Bremerton storyline was far fetched, though it served as a valiant literary device.  

While I think Kate Alcott did a great job of blending fact and fiction, I'm not sure how much I would have enjoyed this book if it wasn't a subject I was interested in and knew so much about.  Or perhaps that's the problem, perhaps I have too much appreciation of the facts.  I would be certainly be willing to read another book by Ms. Alcott, because her research is fantastic.  

Final Take:  3.75/5

Julie's Review: I'm not obsessed with everything Titanic but I will admit to seeing James Cameron's Titanic more than once and less than 10 times in the theater. So when we were looking at books for our challenge I pretty much knew that either Alice or I would pick The Dressmaker. It the end it is a novel about redemption, love and freedom.

Any time I read a book or watch the movie, when the Titanic sinks I am reduced to tears. It is tragic in so many ways. Our heroine, Tess manages to get in one of the lifeboats and make her way to America. It is not without consequences for her and she finds the lady who gives her the opportunity is also the one amid much controversy. Tess spends much of the novel trying to derive fact from fiction. Lucile is mercurial at best but she can teach Tess about the fashion industry and that is something that she desperately wants.

I agree with Alice while there was romance in the novel it wasn't the center focus of the book. By doing this Ms. Alcott let other relationships flourish or flounder. There was never a doubt in my mind which man Tess would end up choosing in the end. Just like you know Rose would chose Jack. The relationships in the book that I enjoyed the most though were the ones between Lucile and Elinor and Pinky and her father. Elinor supported Lucile because she knew in the end it would come down to only her. Pinky's father supported her because he knew that she was good at her job and was destined for great things.

I loved how the novel really did center around the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic. Ms. Alcott did a fantastic job of bringing in the inquiry information and making it seamless to the story. I can only imagine how big of a deal this was back in 1912 for a U.S. Senator to go after a British company and British citizens to find out how an "unsinkable" ship indeed did sink.

For readers of historical fiction this is a gem of a book to not be missed.

Final Take: 4/5



Fancy Terrible May 1, 2012 at 12:02 PM  

It's always fun to read what other people thought about something you've read. Sounds like you guys liked it a bit more than I did, though! Heh.

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