Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott
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.
Kailana: The Dressmaker has had a lot of buzz surrounding it since its release. It started because of good publicity and positive reviews, but a bit of controversy has happened as well. The big claim for the book was that it was a stunning debut, but it has since been revealed that Kate Alcott is a pen name and this is not her first book after all. She was just a struggling author who was having a run of bad luck, wrote this wonderful book, and then couldn’t sell it. That is my understanding anyway. I have had my copy since before the controversy, so I don’t really care about it so much. I just think it is interesting that this book only appealed to publishers because it was a debut. I wanted to read it because of the positive reviews and because it is a fictionalized telling of Lady Duff Gordon. It is almost fitting that Alcott chose to write about Duff Gordon because controversy surrounded her, too. Why did you want to read The Dressmaker?

Marg: I had forgotten about the controversy about the author’s identity. I was interested in reading the book because of the Titanic connection. I haven’t gone on the reading odyssey about the Titanic that you have, but I was sufficiently interested to choose one book to read and hopefully enjoyed.

Having said that the Titanic was the main interest, I was somewhat surprised by how little the events on the boat and during the sinking actually took up in terms of page space. Did that surprise you?

K: I had forgotten about the controversy when I went to read the book, but I couldn’t help thinking about it when it came to reading the book. It was just one of those things.

As to your question, not really. As the guy is alway saying, you know what is going to happen, so why continue to read books about the Titanic. I have found a lot of the fiction that has came out this year has the Titanic as a backdrop, but it is about more than the actual event. I think it is the only way it can stay fresh and justify countless books about it. There is only so many things you can say about the ship sinking and keep it interesting. (To be even more honest, I think some books stuck something Titanic related in just to cash in on the centennial, but that’s just me.)

So, let’s get down to business. What did you think of the book overall?

M: Sure you know what was going to happen, but I think that spending a little bit more time on the disaster itself would have helped me to care more about the characters. I suspect you are right that there are more than a few books out there that were put out just to cash in on the centenary remembrances.

In terms of the actual book, I was …. underwhelmed.

I really liked hearing about the reporter trying to find out what happened, and even about the hearings, but I was disappointed by the love triangle which didn’t feel realistic to me, especially one aspect of the triangle!

The writing was okay - it was certainly an easy enough read, but the execution of the plot didn’t really work all that well for me. How was it for you?

K: I don’t know what I was. This is the last of the Titanic books I have read for me to review ,and I finished it before many of the others, because I didn’t know what I wanted to say about it. When it came to actually reading it I found it to be a page-turner, but I have no idea why. I was happy to see a book about Lady Duff Gordon because there is so much mystery surrounding her and her husband. I have never read the testimonies from the reviews, but I do know that Lady Duff and her husband were two of only 12 people in a lifeboat. Many of the other lifeboats were not full either, but this is the one that received the most attention. It has been said that money was paid to the crew members in the boat. The Duff Gordon’s claimed it was because the moment the Titanic sank, the crew stopped getting paid and they wanted to help them out. The more interesting story is that they paid them to not go back for others. And, the picture really happened, too, but not until afterwards. They didn’t get on the Carpathia and immediately pose. The picture followed the handing out of money in a very public manner. I just can’t see if the money was paid for nefarious reasons such a big deal would be made of it.

So, I guess to get back to your question, this book bothered me. The Duff Gordons have been made some of the scapegoats of history as well as others from the ship, but nothing was ever conclusively proven. There was no innocent until proven guilty. The controversy surrounding the Gordons really did destroy their reputations and he really did leave and move back to England. I think I just hoped for a book that didn’t vilify. Other than the question of the money, their boat was not the only one that wasn’t full and only one lifeboat went back and they waited until the screams died down. I also didn’t like the love triangle, but we can discuss that more after. What did you think of the story of Lifeboat 1?

M: I was disturbed by the story of Lifeboat 1. I really was. Over the years there have been numerous tragedies around the world and one of the positives is that there are so often heroes who put themselves in danger to save others. There definitely didn’t seem to be many people who were willing to help others on that night, and particularly in Lifeboat 1. The portrayal in this book seems to be the very antithesis of heroes - utterly selfish to the core. I guess this is just speculation as to what really happened by putting two and two together and maybe coming up with five, but if what is true comes anything close to the actual events, then the Gordons and their companions behaved abysmally.

Having said that, it does seem that the Duff Gordon’s were vilified to a great degree. You have to wonder if it was a case of making them scapegoats or was their profile so high that they were the obvious choice to be the focus of the media attention. I suspect that if Lady Duff Gordon’s personality was anything like it was portrayed here then she would have upset plenty of people over the years, and she really didn’t have any idea of how to act appropriately in the hours and days following the tragedy. Should she have put her life (i.e. the fashion parade of her line of clothes) on hold indefinitely? Probably not, but it does seem insensitive that it went on so soon after the sinking.

I did find the conversation about the changing nature of clothes and also Tess’s attendance at the suffragette rally interesting, but I didn’t actually think that the latter fit all that well into the book. In some ways, I felt as though the author was trying to fit in more details about New York and the times to try and give a bit more context, but it didn’t necessarily add much to the storyline. There actually was enough drama in the sinking and the hearings.

K: Well, there were a lot of heroes on the Titanic, but yes, there were a lot of people that acted terribly in the face of danger. It was all about them and they didn’t want to risk their lives for anyone else. It was said over and over again that the boats didn’t go back because they were worried they would be swamped or they sailed away quickly because they were worried about suction. I think the thing that sets the Duff Gordon’s apart is the portrayal that she demanded the boat be lowered with so few people in it. Whether or not it really happened, who can say. And, the money. Who really knows what that was about. If it was to help out the crew that wouldn’t be getting paid anymore, they were actually doing a good thing, but it didn’t play out that way.

The suffragettes make an appearance in lots of fiction about the Titanic. Even the mini-series that aired special for the the event had a character that was a suffragette. So, I sort of expected it to be there somewhere in this book. I think I would have liked it better if it was two books. One about the Titanic and some of the aftereffects, but then another book about what it was like for Tess in New York. Then the suffragette stuff would have had their time to be the focal point of the book. There was just too much going on and I was reading the book because it was a Titanic book. I liked that it gave a view of the hearings, too, but by that point of the book there was so much else going on it sort of got pushed aside.

The other two things to talk about is Tess herself and the love triangle that was another major aspect of the book. Personally, Tess annoyed me. I thought she was just a little bit too perfect. She always knew how to get out of a situation and everything just sort of worked out for her no matter what the odds. Even when Lady Duff had her temper tantrums they were not that detrimental to Tess. I mean, the author would try and create problems for Tess, but I never once was worried. I just felt Tess was almost a flat character. I never really worked up any emotion for her... And then, there was the love triangle. My biggest pet peeve with books lately is how they work love triangles into everything... Even the love triangle just seemed fake. What did you think of Tess and what were your thoughts on the love triangle?

M: Tess was okay for me. Not all that memorable but she didn’t annoy me which is a bit of a problem given that she is the title character. There were too many improbables to get her where she needed to be for the story. For example, would a woman like Lady Duff Gordon really just pickup a maid on the docks with no references at all, and then would she have moved her up from the lower decks to stay in first class and join them for dinner etc? Maybe the first could happen the way it did, but there was lots of other events which took Tess out of what I would have expected for her designated role.

The love triangle....sigh. There was one aspect of the triangle that absolutely felt probable, but the other was not. Would a young girl like Tess really catch the attention of both of these men, one a sailor and the other a very wealthy, urbane man? Not to my mind. I really enjoyed the interactions with one of them, but the other didn’t work for me at all.

Sounds like we both pretty much agree that this was an okay but not stellar read?

K: Yeah, maybe how Tess was written annoyed me more than the actual character. I noticed all the improbable things, too. That was kind of what I was trying to say above, but I looked at it a bit differently. As to the love triangle, I don’t think it was all that believable because I think she was trying to use an element that is very popular in books right now, but didn’t really work all that well for this particular book. I think there could have still been a romance without the two men involved.

But, yes, I agree with you that it was just an okay read. When I was originally going to review this by myself I kept opening the document and then not knowing what to say, so I would shut it again. If the book at least gave me more of a response it would have been easier to talk about. Of the books I have read for the last two weeks, it was my least favourite. Actually, for a much more accurate portrayal of what it was like in a lifeboat, albeit a different one, you should read Lifeboat No. 8 which I reviewed here. It is non-fiction, but for what actually occurs on the Titanic in this book, it suits the same purpose.

M: I would have been happy for the romance to be just with the one man!

I will have to see if I can get hold of Lifeboat No. 8.


  1. Great review guys! I still have this in my tbr pile and am interested in it because of the Duff Gordon story too. I hadn't heard any of the controversy about the author though!

    1. Thanks! It wasn't terrible, but also wasn't the best ever...

  2. I have to agree, I was fairly underwhelmed and never understood how Tess was *picked up* and got the job, and associated so closely with her employers.

  3. I was planning to read this but now I'm not so sure...