Saturday, June 23, 2012

My review of Kate Alcott's "The Dressmaker": so what happened after the Titanic sank?

The Dressmaker: A NovelThe Dressmaker: A Novel by Kate Alcott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tess, a young maid who dreams of being a dressmaker and designer, lucks into boarding a ship in the employ of famous fashion designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon and her husband.

The ship is the Titanic, and of course we know how that voyage turned out. Fortunately for Tess and the Duff Gordons, they survive, and once in New York, Tess's dreams begin to come true.

But questions are being raised about the reasons for the Titanic's tragedy and who was to blame, as well as why many of the lifeboats were only partially filled. And the Duff Gordons are squarely in the middle of the controversy.

That means Tess's loyalties are torn between her new employer and a handsome sailor she befriended on the ship, Jim Bonney, who is determined to tell the truth about what really happened on the lifeboat he shared with the wealthy couple.

Good story

I gave this book four stars mainly because it's a good story that held my interest and propelled me along. It also renewed my interest in one of the most fascinating true stories of all time.

Pretty much everything about the doomed ship is intriguing, and I liked this book because it centered around the aftermath of the sinking. We've seen and heard a lot of stories about the actual event...what happened to the survivors who had to pick up the pieces of their lives and move on?

As well, many of the people in the book (although not Tess and Jim) were real people who figured prominently in the Titanic's story, including the Duff Gordons.

"Modern sensibility"?

However, the story falls a bit flat in the area of character development and emotion. It's not a surprise to find that Kate Alcott is a journalist who has covered national politics.

Another reviewer on Goodreads said that the book is guilty of giving its characters a "modern sensibility." I have to agree. They're quite politically correct, and even the hero, Jim Bonney, admits he "doesn't dismiss" the Bolsheviks and tells Tess "hopefully": "There's this bloke, Vladimir Lenin...have you heard of him?"

Also, will someone please tell me when the use of the word "okay" became common? Did people really say it frequently in conversation in 1912? I'm genuinely curious.

I will say that the characters in this book generally talked like contemporary people.

These are quibbles, though. If you like a good, entertaining tale against the backdrop of one of history's most fascinating events, you'll probably enjoy this book...just as I did.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A fascinating book about Louisa May Alcott

I believe I was about eight years old when I first read Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."  It was an abridged version, but it launched me into a world of book-loving that I've never left.

I subsequently read everything by Alcott that I could get my hands on, and of course, I've re-read many of them several times.

This is exactly what my first copy of "Little Women" looked like

So I was delighted to read Harriet Reisen's "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women."

Reisen, who wrote the book after researching the author's life for a documentary, provides a wealth of detail and glimpses into the personal letters and journals of Louisa and her family

Yes, Little Women was largely based on Louisa's own family--her father, famed philosopher Bronson Alcott, her mother Abby, and her sisters, Anna, Lizzie and May.

More than the March Family

But there is so much more to the story of Louisa and her family.  Bronson Alcott's perpetual head-in-the clouds philosophizing and transient schemes for utopian communities and innovative schools brought him fame and even admiration, but it rarely paid the bills.

This caused his wife and family to suffer, and Louisa bore the brunt of it for much of her life.  Once she became a successful author, she felt the constant weight of supporting her family financially.

There's a lot of sadness and suffering in Louisa's life, but through it all emerges the woman that "Jo" was based on...feisty, funny, and usually emerging triumphant over trials and depression.

This image of Louisa as a young woman is so much more attractive than later images.  Can you imagine how pretty she would be if she was smiling?

A fascinating woman

Louisa was ahead of her time.  She was passionate about issues like slavery and women's rights, and she firmly believed a woman could do whatever God had gifted her to do.

 Reisen never questions Louisa's sexuality in the book, as I think some other authors have done.  It's obvious from her personal writings, journals and letters that Louisa was attracted to men, and had a few suitors in her day.

By the way, Reisen believes Louisa's forays into pulp fiction were not just a means to pay the bills, although that was a huge factor.  She posits that Louisa lived vicariously through those daring, sensational tales, experiencing a life beyond her own tame domestic one.

A woman to admire

I find it sad that Louisa never married.  I think her life could have been much sweeter if she had had a life partner to share it with.

It's also sad that medical science had not yet advanced to the point where Louisa's life could have been lengthened beyond the age of 55.  Reisen cites doctors who have speculated that she may have had lupus.

This book left me with an even greater respect and liking for a fascinating woman.  I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the author of so many beloved books.


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