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Book Review: The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

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Why write a Titanic story not really about the Titanic? Because what happens to the survivors makes for interesting reading.

Author Kate Alcott debuts in The Dressmaker, an original piece of historical fiction. Told from an unconventional angle, the book focuses on a handful of survivors and the tragedy’s impact on their lives.

Tess, a lady’s maid turned seamstress, survives the sinking of the famous ship. Once safe in America, she finds new challenges. Of great interest is the relationship between Tess and her boss, fashion designer Lady Lucille Gordon. Tess does a delicate dance between buckling under Lucille’s demands and finding her own independence and design statement. Add two love interests, and you have compelling reading.

Author Kate Alcott, a former newspaper reporter in Chicago, covered politics in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of the University of Oregon, is married and the mother of four daughters. 

Her research into the Titanic, its sinking, and the hearings subsequently prompted is impeccable. One need only look into actual Titanic records to verify the authenticity of the characters she bases on real people.

The subject matter in this novel is fascinating. Panic aboard the ocean liner is deliciously stressful. Tension in the courtroom scenes is well drawn. Mentions of the suffragette movement are neatly placed in the narrative.

Pinky Brown, female reporter for the New York Times, is an intricate character and a refreshing look at women breaking through the early 1900s corporate world. The imperious Lady Duff Gordon and “unsinkable” Molly Brown, actual historical figures, become intricate characters in Alcott’s hands.

It is when we juxtapose the interest in the sinking of the Titanic against the main character’s story that we run into problems. The main struts of the book are the Titanic’s demise, Pinky’s determination as a reporter, and the fashion world of the early 1900s.

Stack those up against Tess, the female heroine, and you find some disappointment. Tess is an admirable, but slightly wooden character. She literally “bumps” into the two men she grows to love, diminishing the romantic tension. Her choice — security or hope. Disappointingly, once Tess is on dry land in America, the last third of the book fizzles.

Alcott is a talented author who almost pulled off a thrilling story beyond the Titanic. With a bit more experience in character development she will be an author to watch. This reader eagerly awaits her next book.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt releases The Dressmaker on February 21, 2012.

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