The Dressmaker: A Novel by Kate Alcott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Where I got the book: audiobook from my local library.
The Dressmaker is about (or partly set on) the Titanic, and we really need more novels about the Titanic. No, seriously, it hasn't been mined out.
So, the plot: Tess is desperate to get away from life as a maid and fulfill her destiny as a seamstress. Fortunately she miraculously bumps into famous designer Lady Duff-Gordon while trying to weasel onto the Titanic as somebody's, anybody's, employee, and Lady D-G offers her a job as her maid after five minutes' acquaintance. She proves a hopeless maid so, instead of firing her, Lady D-G promotes her to secretary and seamstress on the strength of a collar or something.
The Titanic sinks, but not before Tess has attracted the attention of not one but two gorgeous men and generally shown everyone how brilliant she is. Tess, naturally, survives and arrives in New York with the D-Gs to find that they are at the center of a scandal about how their boat had only 12 people in it and didn't go back for more. Tess's brilliance continues to shine and she ends up practically in charge of Lady D-G's business, with the aforesaid two gorgeous men at her feet. At this point everybody starts calling Lady D-G "Lady Duff" and the scandal grows bigger with the suicide of a (fictional?) Cowardly Man of the Titanic. Will Tess desert Lady Duff in her hour of need? Will she choose Rich Jack or Rough Jim? Will her rationalizing of the reason for her final choice ever end? What exactly was the dramatic purpose of journalist Pinky Wade? Oh, the questions.
Now, let's consider the timespan of this book. Two months. Two. Months. That's a short time even for brilliant Tess (who, inexplicably, in the audiobook has a posh accent even though she was a farm girl turned maid) to rise from cleaning toilets to dining with New York's highest society. Of course, this IS America, and they do things differently there. But basically this is pure unadulterated fantasy, which sits a little oddly with the true story, to wit the whole Duff-Gordon "get off my boat" affair. Lady D-G might just possibly have had a soft spot for Tess, and having risen from the ranks herself might have been willing to give the girl a leg-up. But imagine what Tess would have had to have learned: she would have had absolutely no experience of the etiquette, manners, speech and habits of the upper classes. Practically every item of food would have been new to her (she found the stuffed olives attractive? Really? Did she steal them from her former employer?) and the Brits on the ship would have pinned her as an uppity lower-class girl the moment she opened her mouth (we're like that).
I really liked the post-Titanic storyline, and for that reason awarded three stars. Yes, yes, let's talk about the Duff-Gordons and various other rich people who dunked the hoi polloi into the Atlantic because they didn't want riffraff sinking their lifeboats. The Titanic was a perfect, nastily dramatized lesson about what was wrong with the class system of the time. Was Pinky Wade's purpose to drive that point home? Otherwise, I really had no idea what that character was doing in the book (nor why we made a sudden excursion into Votes For Women right at the very end).
And then, there was the head-hopping thing. It's just possibly defensible on the basis that we were looking at the action from the point of view of the Omniscient Narrator so beloved of older novels, but I don't really think so. Much of the time we were firmly inside Tess's head, but at every crisis point we began hopping from one character to another as if Tess had suddenly developed telepathic powers. Let me give a very paraphrased example (to quote it I'd have to find it on the audio CDs, which I listened to in the car). We are in a newsroom, hearing the thoughts of an editor who is talking to Pinky Wade. He notes her reactions, thinks about her, etc. etc. Then Pinky leaves the room (and for a glorious moment the POV floated like a lifebelt on the ocean) and then suddenly we are in HER head, thinking about the editor. Yeeeeeeuuurgh.
Why is this wrong, Jane? You're the one who's always saying writing rules should be broken. And it could have been a lot of fun to deliberately slide the POV around like a traveling camera that follows first one character, then another. But the trouble was, we were so often in Tess's head that I felt she should have been allowed to carry the whole show. Either your heroine's strong enough to hold up the entire novel, or she isn't, and she might have been strong enough given the chance. I'm falling back on the thought that the problem lay with trying to make a true story fit together with a fictional romance (in the old-fashioned sense). James Cameron pulled it off; I don't think Alcott did.
And now to the audiobook. Narrator Susan Duerden delivered her performance in a breathy, well-bred singsong that drove me absolutely nuts, because she put exactly the same inflection on the last syllable of about 90% of her sentences. She was rather good at the Lady D-G and Elinor Glyn voices, but there was that Tess-is-too-posh thing to contend with.
Elinor Glyn, by the way, is rather a fascinating character and I'd like to see more of her, and Lady D-G, and the post-Titanic fallout in the future. The main strength of The Dressmaker lay in its conception of how the events on the Titanic would bleed into the lives of both the survivors and those responsible for determining the truth of that fatal night. I'm just sorry the execution wasn't entirely to my taste.
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