Review: The Dressmaker

I was able to read this gorgeous gem of a book courtesy of Netgalley for Knopf Doubleday publishers.

What caught my eye was the cover, as you know I do indeed judge a book by its cover and this one was striking (in my opinion). I read the description as far as ..”The Titanic” and dove right in…

The Dressmaker, by Kate Alcott comes just in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic (May 1912).  This 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 (some taken from Goodreads) is an engrossing read weaving the actual with the fictitious from the Titanic tragedy.

We know the Titanic, we know what happened on that horrible evening, we’ve seen the epic film, but this novel takes us beyond the sinking of the ship. It takes us into the lives of a few of the survivors, into the immediate Senate hearings following the disaster and in particular in to the life of Tess Collins (fictional), Pinky Wade (fictional), Sir and Lady Duff Gordon (actual), Jim Bonney (fictional) and Jack Bremerton (fictional).

Alcott weaves some fantastic fiction with the actual in our main heroine, Tess Collins. Tess decides in a moment of spontaneity to leave behind the life of wretched servitude and walks out to where the Titanic is docked in search of a new life. By chance she meets Lady Duff Gordon (Lucile), world-renowned fashion designer. Tess will do anything to be given the opportunity to become part of Lucile’s world and to prove that she is an expert dressmaker, including that of becoming her personal maid. For a few wonderous nights Tess is able to experience the beauty of the Titanic and is where she meets Jim, the sailor and Jack Bremerton, the dashing millionaire.

I was immediately taken by this book. From the cover, to the author’s notes providing details about the facts and the fiction on to how this story seamlessly and beautifully weaves two together. I was sad when I knew my time with Tess was coming to an end.

What is so beautiful about this book is how Alcott has taken the tragic story beyond the sinking and so wonderfully imagined their lives, and ordeal as survivors. My breath was taken away by how she richly portrayed Tess, Lucile, Pinky and Jim and their feelings, their stress of the ordeal that followed them after the sinking. Alcott does an amazing job of detailing the public’s perception of the survivors. Again, by weaving the fact with fiction you read how these few which survived a harrowing experience, extreme ineptitude of the ship’s crew, survived freezing cold waters and fought for their survival. By the media frenzy surrounding the Senate hearings we find that the public actually villanizes the survivors.

In reality, the Duff Gordon’s took off on a lifeboat with only 12 people on board and refused to go back to look for survivors, and were said to have pushed people away that were struggling to climb on board. Sir Duff Gordon was said to have paid the crew on the lifeboat, whether as a bribe or as thanks, it is not really known.

It is in this surrounding frenzy following the Duff Gordons, that Tess must struggle with what she feels is right for her future. To stay with Lucile means immense opportunity to starting a new life in fashion, yet it also means remaining with a selfish, mean person that cruelly denied saving people from the Titanic.

“I know how frightening it all was. What I can’t understand if fear so great that people would be pushed away.”

“I’ve admired her from the first day we met, but not today.” (Tess on Lucile Duff Gordon)

Alcott has created a wonderful heroine in Tess. She is headstrong and determined, not whiny or impossible. She maintains strength in her conviction and the romance aspect of this novel does not in any way lessen or take away from her character. Her struggle to choose between a life with the dashing Jack Bremerton, or the strong and steady Jim Bonney is written in a very true way to Tess’ personality and character. It does not overpower the rest of this story.  A definite 4-star read for me. (and I won’t give away any hints as to whom she chooses. 🙂 )

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