February 21, 2012
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Tess Collins' is looking for a way to escaping working for the family that employs her when she runs to the docks the day the Titanic is disembarking from Cherbourg. She manages to finagle her way into working for the famous Lady Lucile Doff Gordon as a maid - for now. Tess knows how to sew, not be a maid, but will do whatever it takes to start a new life.
The firs part of the book is filled with Tess and Lady Duff Gordon, "Madame's" life onboard the Titanic. Readers are introduced to many of the same characters they may already be familiar with from some other semi-fictional Titanic themed works: Isidor Straus, Margaret Brown, the Astors, and of course, Cosmo Duff Gordon as well as characters unique to The Dressmaker. The first class workings of the ship are also (minimally) introduced.
The sinking of the ship occurs rather quickly. Yet, not at all, without emotion. While there is so much of the novel left that you know that at least some of these main characters are going to survive the sinking, it still puts a hitch in your throat to read.
Where Titanic left viewers with Rose arriving safely in New York, in The Dressmaker that is really just where Tess' journey begins. This novel delves into the hearings that were held, investigating what happened on the Titanic - who, if anyone, was to be held accountable and really shows the different ways different survivors reacted. Both to simply surviving as well as to how and/or why they did survive.
It's is definitely a side of the RMS Titanic tragedy that is rarely examined in fiction and I greatly enjoyed it being a part here. Especially as it ran parallel (yet also a great part of) to Tess attempting to begin that new life she was so bound and determined to start that day on the docks.
What is truly fantastic about The Dressmaker - aside from the fictional aspects that are a part of it - is that very, very few if any of the characters are identifiable as good or bad. The characters are so many shades of gray that it's hard to really decide which to side with. Some of it, sure, is the situation. After such a traumatic event it's hard to dislike even those that appear to have made questionable decisions but it also makes it easier to forgive the seeming 'good' guys who do some odd things or believe in the 'bad' guys who do a good thing.
The characters were incredibly human in that regard. There was no set good guy with a halo over their halo or an identifiable devil (at least not among the main characters). It was nice that the morality and decisions of most of the characters seemed murkier than dishwater most of the time.
Kate Alcott's novel not only gives us a marvelous glimpse into what happened after the Carpathia docked, but also what 1914 New York was like - for women, in fashion, as a city. It's a remarkable novel, that I really enjoyed.
(thank you to the publisher for my arc)