The Dressmaker: Book summary and reviews of The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

The Dressmaker

A Novel

By Kate Alcott

The Dressmaker
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  • Published in USA  Feb 2012,
    320 pages.

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Book Summary

Just in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic comes a vivid, romantic, and relentlessly compelling historical novel about a spirited young woman who survives the 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.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"While the fictionalizing of real characters, notably Lucy, doesn't wholly convince, there's an appealing, soulful freshness to this shrewdly commercial offering." - Kirkus Reviews

"Taking the tale of the Titanic out of the frigid sea and docking it in the courtroom and early 20th-century New York gives the familiar story a fresh feel." - Library Journal

"Pinky and a handful of other side characters beleaguer rather than benefit the novel, although Alcott redeems her story with Tess, managing a sweetness that stops short of cloying in her heroine's ever-positive perseverance." - Publishers Weekly

"We all know how the Titanic went down, we all saw the movie. But what happened after? This brilliant book shows the aftermath of the tragedy, seen through the eyes of a brave, young girl who was on board, on her way to America, to start a new life as a dressmaker. From the minute Tess sets foot on the doomed ship, this is the kind of novel you simply cannot put down and cannot forget." - Tatiana de Rosnay, author of Sarah's Key and A Secret Kept

"This is a fascinating premise for a novel as well as a powerful, page-turning read. It's also a very valuable contribution to our understanding of the events surrounding the sinking of The Titanic, and its aftermath." - Isabel Wolff, author of A Vintage Affair

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Reader Reviews

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Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Dorothy T.
Stays afloat
Before I read this historical novel, I was unaware of the hearings that were held in both the US and Great Britain in the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic. Kate Alcott has done a good job of combining the facts of the tragedy and the real people with the story--both fictional and real--of the dress designing business of the early 20th century. I enjoyed the read, and as I have done after reading other historical fiction, I am now reading the account written in 1955 by Walter Lord, A Night to Remember.

By the way, if Mrs. J.J. Brown was really present in all the places she has been written to have been, doing all the things she reportedly did, it is no wonder she has become a legend!

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Becky H
Aftermath of a disaster
The Dressmaker follows the life of Lady Duff-Gordon (real person) and her "maid/dressmaker" Tess Collins (based on a real person) after the sinking of the Titanic. I found the parts relating to the hearings and the dressmaking/couture business most informative and interesting. The love story was just okay. Anyone interested in the Titanic will like this book that mixes real people and fictional ones to bring the aftermath of the disaster to life. The bit about the emerging social changes relating to women's position and workplace culture will be fodder for book group discussions as well.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Louise J
Nice Historical Fiction
A lot of the testimony in this story was taken directly from the transcripts of the U.S. senate hearings. According to the author, the “basic bones of the story are true: Lady Duff Gordon, a world-famous designer, escaped with her husband and secretary in a lifeboat that, according to various reports, could have held between forty and fifty people instead of only twelve.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel of part fiction and part fact and would highly recommend it to my friends. Kate Alcott has managed to write beautifully about a sad and tragic event in history. Well done!

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Kendra R. (New Orleans, LA)
Great historical fiction, unnecessary love interest
What happens after the Titanic's passengers disembark was a new and very engaging story for me. I enjoyed the characters and the history and appreciated the author's note on fact vs fiction. The second romantic interest was unnecessary, and had me wondering what the book's overall tenor was going to be...but in the end, it was all about the Dressmaker and was enjoyable. It would certainly please multiple people - history, romance, women's issues - and make a good book club read, but maybe it was trying to hard to please too many people.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Diane H. (San Diego, CA)
Fresh View of an Old Story
Kate Alcott's The Dressmaker takes readers beyond the stories we all know about the sinking of the Titanic to the everyday lives of the survivors after the tragedy. Although it's difficult to judge characters in historical fiction by today's standards, I think the author did a good job of showing Tess on the edge of the 19th century women's movement as well as breaking through the structures of European class distinctions in a new America. Lots of strong female characters but it was difficult to be stuck with old-fashioned male/female relationships. Book clubs will enjoy lively discussions after reading this one.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Barbara W. (Watertown, NY)
Good, Fast Read. Great Historical Perspective.
A side of the Titanic tragedy that you often do not read about – the aftermath of survivor's lives, including the U.S. Senate hearings. The story follows real-life and fictional characters, illuminating the changing attitudes of society and the workplace. The themes of character and the consequences of our choices are strong throughout the novel.

...24 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Kate Alcott Author Biography

Patricia O'Brien's award-winning career has spanned the worlds of books - fiction and non-fiction - journalism, politics and education. 

Her latest novel, The Dressmaker, written under the pseudonym of Kate Alcott, is a New York Times best seller.  Centered on the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic, it was published by Doubleday in 2012.  Another novel, The Daring Ladies of Lowell, is slated for publication in 2014.

She is the co-author, along with Ellen Goodman, of  the New York Times non-fiction bestseller entitled, I Know Just What You Mean – The Power of Friendship In  Women's Lives.

She is also the author of two other historical novels, Harriet and Isabella, a novel about Harriet Beecher Stowe, which was published by Simon and ...

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