Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 23, 2013

It is 1910 and Maria, a talented young girl from the East end of London, is employed to work as a seamstress for the royal family. As an attractive girl, she soon catches the eye of the Prince of Wales and she in turn is captivated by his glamour and intensity. But careless talk causes trouble and soon Maria’s life takes a far darker turn. Disbelieved and dismissed she is thrown into a mental asylum, shut away from the real world with only her needlework for company. Can a beautiful quilt, discovered many years later, reveal the truth behind what happened to Maria?

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Liz Trenow's debut novel, The Last Telegram, made a significant impression on me. I found her ability to convey such poignant emotions against the tumultuous backdrop of WWII highly appealing and couldn't wait to read more of her work. As you might well imagine, that anticipation made waiting for The Forgotten Seamstress something of a challenge. 

Now I can't say Maria's story struck the same chord as Lily's, but I feel that actually worked in Trenow's favor as this is an entirely different kind of narrative. The Last Telegram was a relatively linear piece, but The Forgotten Seamstress is as layered and diverse as the patchwork quilt around which the story unfolds. 

Take for example, the novel's title character. Despite being the central figure of Trenow's narrative, the reader never meets Maria face to face. Her story comes to us piecemeal in a series of half-remembered family histories, personal letters and audio cassettes. One feels naturally distanced from this character, but the manner in which we come to understand the events of her life is remarkably intimate. The contrast that created, the inherent sentimentality of it, translates beautifully and becomes, I think, one of the strongest aspects of the entire narrative. 

Another interesting facet of this piece is that it is a multigenerational story, a feature that allowed Trenow to explore evolving social norms in a very unique fashion. Separated by decades, Maria and Caroline share a very similar personal experience. The resulting parallel produces nice symmetry between both portions of the novel, but the variation highlighted by the side by side comparison of their situations is also quite fascinating. 

Last, but certainly not least, I love the historic details Trenow worked into the fabric of this piece. Her foray into the world of twentieth century psychiatrics offered an unexpected twist that sparked my interest and encouraged me to research a topic I knew very little about. For me, this is the difference between good and great historic fiction. The good is entertaining, but the great inspires you to look between the lines of text and absorb those details that inspired author to put pen to paper in the first place.

A definite addition to my list of personal favorites, The Forgotten Seamstress is a moving tale of lost love, enduring hope, and renewed faith.

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The words were so heartfelt, and yet nowhere in the medical notes was there a single mention of any pregnancy, or a baby. Was all of that just a fantasy, too? Perhaps most of the story was true, or just delicately embroidered, like Maria’s elegant stitching? But wherever the truth lay, I loved her descriptions of how she had made the quilt, and how she had designed the individual frames. Each concentric section had been created to represent or commemorate individuals she had known: her lover – whoever he was – the lost baby and the hospital visitor who befriended her and helped bring back her speech. Her history was held in the fabrics she’d used, the designs, and the appliquéd figures. It was the patchwork of a life – the metaphor pleased me – and now I understood the meaning of that little vers
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