Review: The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

Do you find yourself wasting countless hours a day, day dreaming of the Edwardian era? Do you suddenly find yourself longing for a corset, button up boots, and an ostrich plum hat? You my friend are in good company and clearly suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawals.

If like me, you are looking for literary tale to satisfy your need…then look no further than Kate Alcott’s novel, The Dressmaker. The Dressmaker is a Cinderella-ish tale reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada set against the backdrop of the Titanic disaster.

Tess Collins spontaneously quits her job with the hope of gaining last minute employment on the Titanic the day it is to set sail. Tess has been working as a maid but her passion is fashion….she longs to design luxurious dresses and make a name for herself in the new world.

Lucile Duff Gordon (who was a real person by the way) is already a famous clothing designer, she is traveling to America with her titled husband, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, to supervise her New York fashion show–but at the last minute her maid quits.

Fate intervenes, crossing the paths of Tess Collins and Lucile Duff Gordon–their lives change forever.

Tess is supposed to be a maid for Lucile, but Lucile recognizes her talent for design and decides to foster Tess’s ambition as her ‘mentor’. Tess has raw talent and is fashion forward and though Lucile admires that she is also threatened by it. Lucile has had a long standing reputation in the industry as the boss from hell.

She is brilliant and her designs extraordinary but behind a carefully coordinated exterior is a demanding, vicious, relentless, and cruel woman. But Tess idolizes her and knows she has the chance of a lifetime, Lucile promises a job and apprenticeship in her shop in New York when Titanic docks….if Tess proves herself a loyal and dedicated servant to ‘Madam’.

On board Tess meets two people that will have a huge bearing on her future besides Madam: Jack Bremerton and Jim Bonney. They couldn’t be more opposite: Jack is a rich businessman from Chicago and Jim is a poor English sailor on the Titanic. Jack is dashing, older gentleman–a regular prince charming. Comparatively, Jim is sweet and hardworking lad hoping to make his way in America.

But before the ‘ship of dreams’ can make good on her nickname….the Titanic goes down in the middle of the north Atlantic….leaving in its wake: tragedy, death, shame, scandal, and tales of heroics. We all know the story, but what we don’t know is what happened after the ship sank. What became of those who survived?

Tess and Lucile survived the sinking along with much of the upperclass and their servants….but would they survive the scandal and congressional inquiry? When the rescue ship (The Carpathia) docked in New York harbor, the investigators and press were there waiting for the story of the century. Allegations were ripe….a tragedy occurred and someone would need to answer the questions.

Enter  ferocious New York Times reporter…Sarah ‘Pinky’ Wade, who proves to be a strong female character. She is reporting on the investigation: why was there a lack of binoculars? Why did only one of the lifeboats make an attempt to save those dying in the water? Why when the life boats were built for 60-70 were only 12 floating to safety?  Pinky intends to find out!

The court of public opinion has been slandering the Duff Gordon’s with terrible acts of cowardice–Tess can scarcely believe the lies about Madam but yet there is a grain of salt….there is a a cruel, ruthless streak in Madam that Tess can’t ignore.

When Tess discovers that Jack and Jim both survived the Titanic disaster, her heart is torn between the two but before she can make up her mind–Jim is called to testify in the congressional hearings and with his testimony comes what Tess fears most….the truth about Madam. She can’t hold the truth against Jim, Tess was not in the boat–who is to say what was right and what was wrong in the moment. But with the testimony threatening to rip Jim and Tess apart….another steps in to comfort her–Jack.

When both men declare their love, Tess must choose between the two. Lucile was not much different than Tess when she became a famous designer–marrying for money and support to have her dream–a dream she cold her soul to have. Would Tess become like Lucile? Jack was different though wasn’t he? If she chose Jim, she would be poor and struggle…hopefully one day she would be more than a maid. Could she ever love someone though who’s opinions and goals were so different from her own though? Could she be content with a man like Jim?

With Tess’s heart pulled in two different directions, a nation grieving and changing, and the press hounding every hearing….pressure and tension is mounting….how will she merge her hopes for her heart and her career? Will Tess’s dreams all sink into the cold waters of the Atlantic like the Titanic and be lost forever? Taking a cruise on the Titanic would prove deadly but no more than being in debt to Madam…..

I fully intended to read this novel in April to mark the 100 year anniversary of the Titanic (hard to believe my grandmother was born 3 years after Titanic!!) but I couldn’t wait till then. I’ve been waiting on this book’s release date for months now!

The book was interesting but I was expecting more of the story to take place on the boat itself. The sinking was glossed over and the hearings became the ‘center stage’. I think the book could have been a little longer which would have built more tension and depth to the characters. I didn’t feel the depth or the conflict in any of the characters and Pinky was the most interesting and likable of all and she wasn’t the main protagonist.

The ending seemed rushed for me and the romance anti-climatic….I was expecting more. I didn’t care for either of the love interests…Jack was a little rake-ish for my taste and Jim was a little too brawny Irish for me (though he was English). He reminded me of Branson from Downton Abbey but not nearly as charming….Jim was definitely wanting in the charm area for me.

That said, I enjoyed the book and could scarcely put it down all weekend….if nothing save for the historic content and period setting. Honestly I was expecting more from the book. It seemed like it was going to be a little ‘chick lit-ish’ with all the fashion and design stuff but I was pleasantly relieved that fashion did not take over the book.

The book isn’t earth shattering or ‘high brow lit’ by any stretch of the measure but it was enjoyable and a quick easy read with interesting historic content.

If you like the Edwardian period and like me–are craving more Downton inspired lit then this is the book for you. The book was a little flat for my taste but the overall bling of the period and setting did a lot of it. You really got the sense the world was on the cusp of change and progress….an exciting time not only in America but all over the world…Titanic marked the ending of an era that is for sure.

The glitz and glamour of the Victorian/Edwardian era were coming to a close but the industrial progress and social climate were changing….always an exciting period which saved the book for me!

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

  • Kindle Edition
  • Published (first published February 21st 2012)

This book counts toward:

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Recommendation: 3 out of 5 (a quick easy read, great for Edwardian era historic fiction fans and Downton Abbey fans)

Genre: Historic fiction, literature

Memorable lines/quotes:

Here is lesson number one for using opportunity: waste no time on false humility. Tell the world about your achievements don’t wait for someone else to do it. (23)

There is always a choice….that’s what makes life so complicated (241)

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