Friday, May 04, 2012

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

Back in April, we had a special event at Historical Tapestry to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Kelly, in particular, did an amazing job. My contribution was to read this book and then Kelly and I did a joint review of it!

This is the second part of the discussion. Check out the first part of the discussion here. My thoughts are in purple and Kelly's in black.


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.


Tess, an aspiring seamstress, is stunned at her luck when the famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon hires her to be a personal maid on the Titanic's doomed voyage. On board, Tess meets a rough-hewn but kind sailor and an enigmatic Chicago businessman, and is intrigued by their differing views of what could lie ahead for her in American.

On the fourth night of the voyage, disaster strikes. Tess is one of the last people amidst the chaos to escape into a lifeboat. Her sailor also survives, ordered into a sparsely filled boat commandeered by Lady Duff Gordon’. Many others - including the gallant Midwestern tycoon—are not so lucky.

The survivors are rescued and taken to New York. The US enquiry into the sinking of the titanic begins almost immediately, even as rumors about the survivors begin to circulate about the survivors and the choices they made. An enterprising female reporter, Pinky Wade, hears that Lady Duff Gordon may have saved herself at the expense of others, and the ensuing stories catapult the imperious fashion designer onto the front pages of the newspapers, turning her into an immediate object of scorn.

Tess is torn between loyalty to the fiery woman who would be her mentor and the insistence of her sailor that Lady Duff Gordon's version of events on that dark sea is far from the truth.

Unsure where her loyalties and her heart lie, Tess is caught at a crossroads, one with increasing complications and surprises along the way. Through it all, Tess must navigate her place in the world, hoping to realize her dream of becoming a skilled dressmaker.

Filled with powerful scenes from the Titanic hearings played against the backdrop of such New York landmarks as Central Park, the Waldorf Astoria, Macy's, and Carnegie Hall, The Dressmaker is atmospheric delight filled with all the period's lush glamour, all the raw feeling of a national tragedy, and all the contradictory emotions of young love.


  1. This was an okay read for me too especially because of the romance-I did not like either guy.

    But I was very interested in the portrayal of what went down on the lifeboats even though we'll never really know how everyone acted.

    1. No, we will never really know what went down which does leave it open to speculation, but what we do know doesn't look great for the people concerned!

  2. Haha, well, I'm glad I got to take this one OFF the wish list, in any case :-)

    1. Always glad to be of assistance, Aarti! lol

    2. A lot of other people really liked it...

  3. Well, I am at least curious to find out what went on on lifeboat 1! This was a great joint review. I am sorry the book wasn't more of a success!

    1. Thanks Zibilee. By the way, I know I owe you an email! I have been very slack and not responded, but I will!

  4. Ah, this was on my list, too ... thinking I'll move it down a bit. The psychological drama of what did (or did not) happen on those lifeboats could (and has?) filled dozens of books!

    1. Plenty of scope for endless speculation for sure!

  5. Thanks for another buddy review, Marg!



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