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Book Review: The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles

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Emilia and Luzia are orphaned teenage sisters living in the late 1920s in the interior of northern Brazil. It’s a simple life but not without some small luxuries—whitewashed walls on their small but several-roomed home, an outhouse with a wooden door out back, plenty to eat, and work for the two girls and the aunt who is raising them. The three work as seamstresses in the small town of Taquaritinga do Norte, in the state of Pernambuco. Theirs is an isolated life, as the city is a week’s journey from the coast and the small town rests high in the mountains, but the isolation affords the town a relative amount of safety from the bands of cangaceiros, heroic outlaws who do battle with the land barons, or “colonels” who rule the land of the interior like warlords.

Emilia and Luzia have the deep if somewhat superstitious affection of their Aunt Sofia, and, most importantly, they have each other. Born two years apart, they share a room and a bed and an almost preternatural bond, especially after a childhood accident leaves Luzia crippled. A fall from a tree breaks her arm and is set so badly it heals to be permanently bent at the elbow, causing the small community to nickname the girl Victrola. Luzia grows too tall and thin and quiet, while Emilia, tiny, dainty and very beautiful, dreams of becoming a fashionable lady and leaving Taquaritinga behind. She rejects every country bumpkin suitor who comes her way, falling instead for the sewing instructor who teaches her how to use the new Singer sewing machine that she uses; his rejection is part of the series of events that sets the course of her life and the novel, The Seamstress.

When a chance encounter with Hawk, the equally-scarred but compelling head of the cangaceiros, turns Luzia’s head, she finds her own way out of her life in Taquaritinga and Emilia keeps her secret by telling Sofia and the town that she has been kidnapped by the bandits. Sofia’s death, Emilia’s rejection by the sewing master, and her realization that she may be alone all her life, spur her to make a marriage of convenience to Degas, a student and the friend of an old childhood friend, and soon she is off to Recife, the big city on the coast, and a life she had only imagined.

There she joins the wealthy Coelho family, of whom Degas is the doted-upon only son, and Emilia, the outsider. She must learn to speak and to dress properly; she must be schooled in manners and etiquette, what to say and to whom and when. Degas ignores her, preferring his schooling and his friends. He has secrets of his own. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, Luzia becomes a cangaciero, first feared by the men, and then revered and loved by them, while later she and Hawk almost become larger-than-life superheroes. Her journey is beautiful, horrific, frightening, and intense, mirrored by Emilia’s personal and heartbreaking journey of discovery in Recife, each keeping up with the other through newspapers clippings and secret messages, through the coincidental meetings of other characters, and a huge host of life events. All the while, Luzia and Emilia are each still sewing and creating, albeit separately and quite differently from each other.

Their personal journeys are set against an incredible backdrop of Brazilian history and politics during the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the North American stock market crashed and provoked a “crisis” in Brazil, when political parties fought for the hearts and minds of Brazilians, when women agitated for the vote, when the cangaceiros were at perhaps the height of their power, when Brazil thought about signing on with the Germans at the beginning of their power grab, and when the government was trying to connect the interior of the country with the exterior.

Frances de Pontes Peebles' first novel is a remarkable feat of research, industry, writing, and beauty. She has fashioned a story of love, betrayal, politics, and history with a set of memorable characters and a plot that keeps the reader swept along, even as it full of minute and careful, nearly painstaking detail. Entire conversations are rendered, descriptions of the interior's brush, the land, the homes, the fashions, events, faces, battles, are constructed so that while the readers is engaged in the novel, it is not a cliché to say that it is nearly like being in the country.

At a time when first novels are being rejected right and left, when the American publishing industry seems to be always on the verge of its death throes, when new writers can’t catch a break, and when big fat novels just aren’t cool, this 656-page genre-defying page-turner must have been a risk for both the literary agent who represented it and Harper Collins, who bought it. I applaud everyone who had a hand in it. The Seamstress just won Elle Magazine’s Fiction Grand Prix 2008 and if there is justice it should win a number of other awards and many thousands of grateful, appreciative readers.

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About Lisa Solod