In 1912, when the Titanic’s rescue ship pulled into New York, survivors of the disaster faced a great deal of complicated feelings, among them, survivor’s guilt. Of 2,224 passengers, only an estimated 705 survived the sinking of what people thought was an invincible ship. The world was horrified and demanded answers from Bruce Ismay, Chairman of White Star and the surviving crew. In response, Senator William Alden Smith led an inquiry into the accident and the rescue. One of the investigation’s first discoveries was that there were not enough lifeboats on board (only enough for 1,178 passengers), that many of the lifeboats left the ship before they were filled and that some of the boats had only a few passengers on them. Although women and children were chosen first for the lifeboats, wealth and privilege were also major factors in determining who got a seat. There were plenty of heroes, but rumors also flew about lifeboat passengers who ignored the desperate cries and pleading outstretched arms from the ship and from the water.
The Dressmaker is a story written into the history of the Titanic’s voyage, its passengers and the disaster’s aftermath. It’s a light historical fiction and romance, centered around a young English maid and seamstress, the fictional Tess Collins, who talks her way onto the ship to work for Lady Lucille Duff Gordon, a famous and mercurial English fashion designer. Lucille is a demanding boss, with no scruples and her husband, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon pulls strings in the background to guarantee his wife’s success and prominence. The Duff Gordons are actual historical figures, as are many other characters in the story, including Lucille’s sister Elinor, Bruce Ismay, Mrs. Molly Brown, and Senator Smith.
As the story begins, Tess catches the eyes of two interesting men on the ship, a young sailor named Jim Bonney, and Jack Bremerton, an older and sophisticated Chicago businessman. Tess has just escaped a servant’s life and may be ready for love, but who will win her charms? Disaster may hit, but the love triangle continues and becomes more complicated once Tess arrives in New York.
Once in New York, we meet Pinky Wade, a spunky newspaper gal from the New York Times, who knows how to get a good story, and is assigned to cover the Titanic hearings. During the inquiry, stories about what others did to survive paint a desperate scene, which becomes a heavy burden for some of the passengers. As details emerge about what went on in the Duff Gordons’ lifeboat, whether Cosmo bribed the crew to refuse more passengers or worse, Lucille’s reputation is in big trouble. To help, Tess takes an active role in Lucille’s upcoming fashion show. Despite Lucille’s tantrums and criticisms, Tess feels indebted to her mentor, that is, until Jim becomes a target. Then Tess must decide what’s more important, her friendship with Jim or her fashion career with Lucille.
It’s hard to resist a story about the Titanic and I enjoyed reading The Dressmaker for these historical references. I also liked imagining the interactions between the actual historical figures and Alcott’s fictional characters in the book. I did not know about the inquiry that followed the disaster and found that very interesting. Alcott includes actual testimony from the hearings, which brings a good sense of authenticity to the book.
Alcott’s characters, however, are simple and undeveloped, and that takes away from the lure of the story. I wanted to know more about Tess as a girl and about her job as a maid. Because she boarded the Titanic in France, I was unsure if she was French or English or Irish, as details about her past are vague. Alcott’s other characters seem stereotypical and flat, forcing the reader to focus on the historical element.
The story is a nice one, nevertheless, an easy read and a good way to relax. I would be interested in reading Alcott’s newest book about Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, A Touch of Stardust, since I’m a big fan of Gone With the Wind!
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