Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: July 20, 2012

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.

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Lady Duff Gordon
I have started to review Kate Alcott's The Dressmaker a hundred times and a hundred times I've thrown up my hands in frustration. Focusing on content alone makes it impossible to understand where I am coming from, but examining my experience with the book also leaves quite a bit out. Apologies, but this might be a little long winded. 

It seems like aa lifetime ago, but like so many I went through a Titanic phase, studying anything and everything I could get my hands on. The publication of The Dressmaker rekindled that interest. Eagerly I waited for the book to become available at my local library. 

While I waited, I came across a New York Times article that detailed the trials Patricia O'Brien faced in getting her manuscript to print. I was naturally upset by the treatment she received from the publishing industry and by the time I finally landed a copy of her work was convinced her struggle was entirely unjust. Then of course, I read the book. 

I'm sorry, but Jack Dawson winning a pair of tickets in a lucky hand of poker was more believable than Tess Collins landing a position with Lucile Duff Gordon on the docks the day Titanic set sail. It is a pivotal moment, one the entire book depends on, but I couldn't force myself to swallow it for anything. The very idea is nothing short of ridiculous though not quite so much as the manner in which Alcott tackled the actual sinking.

The sinking of Titanic
Alcott's story begins in Cherbourg on April 10th, the iceberg made famous by the tragedy is first mentioned on page 48 and by page 65 our plucky heroine is watching dawn break over the waves from a lifeboat in the north Atlantic. While I can understand that Alcott wanted to focus on the hearings that followed the sinking, I cannot wrap my head around actual event receiving less than twenty pages of text. Honestly it might as well have been left out entirely.

Do you see what I'm getting at? The story lacked plausibility, there is no real development of the characters or their relationships and it utterly failed to strike the emotional chord I expected considering the intense subject matter. I wanted to like the piece, but Alcott missed the mark at nearly every turn, the exception being female reporter Pinky Wade who I actually enjoyed even if her involvement with the suffragette movement clashed with the legal proceedings that inspired Alcott to write the book. 

Arrival of the "ship of sorrow" at New York

I forced myself to finish the piece, but it was an uphill battle all the way. By the time I completed the final page I couldn't help wondering if this book was ever given a fair shot. It was initially rejected because of the author's sales record, but it was also part of the rush of Titanic lit that was released to coincide with the centennial anniversary of the disaster. Was it at all possible that the book was rushed through the editing process? Would this lack of development and conflicting storylines exist if the book were to have been released on  some other date? Would the marketing department have created a promotional campaign that more accurately reflected the content of the book if they hadn't been concerned with a deadline? These are just a few of the questions that plagued me every time I attempted to write this review, the root cause of my frustration and reason I don't really know how to phrase my feelings on the book. 

I honest don't know if I had trouble with The Dressmaker because I couldn't appreciate Alcott's style of storytelling or because I set an unrealistic expectation and that my judgment was corrupted before I even got hold of the piece. I am willing to admit both played a part in forming my overall impression of the book, but I suppose in the end it doesn't really matter. I liked the idea of the book, Alcott's exploration of the aftermath, but the execution failed to draw me in.

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“I've told you to look for opportunity, dear Tess. Keep your head up, not down. Don't settle for safety. Push forward-you are not foolish to try.”
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