Dressmaker (Alcott)

The Dressmaker
Kate Alcott, 2012
Knopf Doubleday
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385535588|

Summary
A vivid, romantic, and relentlessly compelling historical novel about a spirited young woman who survives the Titanic disaster only to find herself embroiled in the media frenzy left in the wake of the tragedy.

Tess, an aspiring seamstress, thinks she's had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired by famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon to be a personal maid on the Titanic's doomed voyage. Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men, one a roughly-hewn but kind sailor and the other an enigmatic Chicago millionaire. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes.

Amidst the chaos and desperate urging of two very different suitors, Tess is one of the last people allowed on a lifeboat. Tess’s sailor also manages to survive unharmed, witness to Lady Duff Gordon’s questionable actions during the tragedy. Others—including the gallant Midwestern tycoon—are not so lucky.

On dry land, rumors about the survivors begin to circulate, and Lady Duff Gordon quickly becomes the subject of media scorn and later, the hearings on the Titanic. Set against a historical tragedy but told from a completely fresh angle, The Dressmaker is an atmospheric delight filled with all the period's glitz and glamour, all the raw feelings of a national tragedy and all the contradictory emotions of young love. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Kate Alcott is the pen name of author Patricia O'Brien, who is the author of Harriet and Isabella, The Glory Cloak and co-author of I Know Just What You Mean, a New York Times bestseller. She lives in Washington, D.C.

A New York Times article explains the reason for O'Brien's new pseudonym:

Patricia O’Brien had five novels to her name when her agent, Esther Newberg, set out last year to shop her sixth one, a work of historical fiction called The Dressmaker. A cascade of painful rejections began. Ms. O’Brien’s longtime editor at Simon & Schuster passed on it, saying that her previous novel, Harriet and Isabella, hadn’t sold well enough.

One by one, 12 more publishing houses saw the novel. They all said no.

Just when Ms. O’Brien began to fear that The Dressmaker would be relegated to a bottom desk drawer like so many rejected novels, Ms. Newberg came up with a different proposal: Try to sell it under a pen name.

Written by Kate Alcott, the pseudonym Ms. O’Brien dreamed up, it sold in three days.



Book Reviews
The book, a story of a scrappy seamstress who survives the sinking of the Titanic,... ushered in by sparkling reviews (Kirkus said it had “an appealing, soulful freshness”) and with translation rights sold in five countries, something that had never happened to any of Ms. O’Brien’s books before.
Julie Bosman - New York Times


An unashamed girlie-book....we learn a good deal about what it was like when the ship went down. But we also follow Tess as she learns about the high-fashion business in New York.
Washington Post


Why write a Titanic story not really about the Titanic? Because what happens to the survivors makes for interesting reading.....compelling.....Her research into the Titanic, its sinking, and the hearings subsequently prompted is impeccable....fascinating.....actual historical figures become intricate characters in Alcott's hands.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer


The 1912 sinking of the Titanic is the stone at the center of a ripple expanding to encompass the rest of the world in this fictionalized account of real historical persons and events. It is a layered story highlighting class differences and the public and private personas people put on as easily as high-fashion dresses, illustrating both the tragedy’s individual torment as well as a larger wave of survivor’s guilt. Multiple points of view bring many perspectives to the witch-hunt atmosphere and courtroom drama of a shocked world looking for someone to blame. By setting the story mainly in New York City, Alcott contrasts Lady Duff Gordon’s lush, glittering world of high society with reporter Pinky Wade’s tenement squalor and seamstress Tess Collins’s ambition and longing for freedom. Tess, the fulcrum of a star-crossed love triangle with two fellow survivors, a twice-divorced wealthy American and a sailor with a talent for woodcarving, never loses her integrity as she struggles to make sense of everything. These small stories stand for hundreds of others whose voices were stolen by the tragedy as survivors faced the consequences of indiscretion and quick tongues. A low hum of background action–suffragettes and union tensions–mirrors the human costs in the disaster that besets the Titanic....will find much to think about in this story shaped by the inherent desire to know more about one of the most documented and researched tragedies in human history
Library Journal


It's Titanic revisited, in a romance focused on the survivors and the scandal, seen from the perspective of an aspiring seamstress whose fortunes intertwine with real characters from the epic tragedy....interesting historical facts...an appealing, soulful freshness to this shrewdly commercial offering.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 remains in many people’s eyes a symbolic dividing line between a world with rigid class divisions and one with a rising middle class. Tess yearned to be part of the glamour and Jim wanted to be free of its constraints. Can a happy medium be found between these two desires, not only for Tess and Jim, but for anyone in similar circumstances?
 
2. Tess and Pinky were two young women in a rapidly changing world, on the cusp of a time when women could actually make choices about their lives and work.  Describe how the choices for women one hundred years ago differ from today, and how they remain the same.
 
3. Tess and Pinky are both smart, competent women who experience moments of both conflict and companionship with one another. What ultimately draws them together and bonds their friendship?
 
4. In many ways Tess is unflappable and emotionally direct, but at times, she can be anxious and uncertain, especially around Lucille.  Dealing with design—fabric, texture, and color seem to be the best route to confidence. What does this say about Tess’ personality?
 
5. What is your overall impression of Lucile?  Is she a villain or simply misunderstood? If her arrogance and sense of privilege are what got her into trouble, what redeeming factors—if any—do you see in her?
 
6. How would you argue Lucille’s case? Compare her treatment to that of celebrities of our own time who get caught in controversy.
 
7. Fashion is its own character in the book—both glamorous and fickle. Is the fashion industry viewed differently now than it was in 1912? Who is Lucille’s design equivalent today? Or was Lucille incomparable?
 
8. If Lucille’s career had not declined after the sinking, do you think she could have evolved as a designer and conformed to society’s new opinions of the female figure and fashion? Or were both Lucille and her designs destined to become obsolete?
 
9. Only one of twenty lifeboats went back for survivors. Many people felt anguish and regret; others believed they had no choice.  Can you picture yourself in that same situation? Husbands, children in the water—what comes first, the instinct to survive or to save others? How would you hope you would act?
 
10. Officer Harold Lowe was criticized for declaring he waited until the pleas for help from the water “thinned out” before going back on a rescue mission.  This kind of blunt honesty shocked those who heard it. Are we still adverse to hearing hard facts from those whom we want to be heroes?
 
11. Using the “whitewash brush,” as a ship officer put it, the White Star Line did its best to deny all responsibility for the Titanic tragedy. Its officers even falsely claimed at first that the ship had not sunk, raising the hopes of the families waiting on land. What parallels do you see with White Star’s corporate reaction and current corporate self-protectiveness?
 
12. Did you find out anything new about the Titanic from reading the book? Were you aware of the hearings that occurred after the sinking?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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