Reviews for Dressmaker

Booklist Reviews 2012 January #1
Alcott's debut brims with engrossing storytelling, marred by occasionally clunky writing. Tess Collins is an ambitious young woman who dreams of stepping out of her 1912 class restrictions and becoming more than a maid. She wants the world to know her talent as a dressmaker. Her fate is forever altered when she encounters the mercurial, imperious designer, Lady Lucile Duff Gordon and becomes that lady's personal assistant on the ocean liner Titanic. The actual sinking of the great ship is treated briefly (which may disappoint some Titanic buffs). Tess is willing to do almost anything to realize her designing dreams, even if it means bowing to the increasingly irrational, grandiose whims of her overprivileged employer. As Tess' personal dramas unfold, the ugly aftermath of the ocean tragedy and the roles passengers and crew members played are revealed by the disturbing official investigation, which Alcott takes almost verbatim from the transcripts of the U.S. Senate hearings. For fans of Sarah Jio, Susanna Kearsley, and immigrant tales. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2012 March
The tragedy that still resonates, a century later

April 14, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and several new books are being published to both mark the centennial and shed new light on the famous disaster. The selections featured here range from straight historical analysis of the event to fiction that uses the sinking ship as a starting place for its characters.


Voyagers of the Titanic focuses on the ship’s passengers, from first class and its posh surroundings down to those in steerage, some of whom helped to build the ship. Biographer and historian Richard Davenport-Hines finds stories even in the items recovered from the dead: John Jacob Astor IV, the ship’s wealthiest passenger, died with $4,000 cash on his person, while Greek farmworker Vassilios Katavelas carried just a mirror, comb, 10 cents and a train ticket. A gripping chapter dedicated to plotting out the ship’s collision and sinking is where such attention to detail pays off—having come to know and care about the people on board in a new way makes the poignancy of losing them fresh again.


Maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham begins Titanic Tragedy with biographical sketches of Guglielmo Marconi and Samuel Morse, whose inventions enabled wireless communication between ships. (They seemingly foresaw instant messaging, too: Busy radio operators would dismiss interruptions with “GTH” rather than type “Go to Hell.”) While there were failings in radio communication during the wreck, without it everyone on board would have perished while awaiting rescue. Maxtone-Graham then shifts focus to bring us inside the shipyard and the building of the ocean liner everyone thought unsinkable, and captures the drama of its untimely end without injecting his opinion. There are no broadly drawn heroes and villains here, just people thrown into a desperate situation for which they are horribly unprepared. He reserves his ire for those who have turned historically relevant sites into tourist attractions or housing developments; those locations contain stories yet untold that may never be known to us.

There are no broadly drawn heroes and villains here, just people thrown into a desperate situation for which they are horribly unprepared.


Andrew Wilson’s Shadow of the Titanic looks for meaning in the aftermath of the disaster, following up on survivors “after the glare of attention had dimmed.” It’s both dishy and speculative, and as such very entertaining. White Star Lines Captain Bruce Ismay, long despised for taking a seat in a lifeboat rather than going down with the ship (a scenario eerily relived in the recent sinking of the Costa Concordia), is casually labeled a “masochist” on rather scant evidence. The nervous chatter among some first-class passengers while awaiting rescue is parsed for damning evidence of self-involvement among the idle rich. Shadow of the Titanic nevertheless gives us an interesting new view of the tragedy, including the fact that among survivors, some felt the four days aboard the rescue ship Carpathia were more traumatic than the accident that led them there.


Shifting gears, we find a novel that sets sail just in time to crash, at which point things really get interesting. In The Dressmaker, novelist Kate Alcott invents a plucky maid for the very real Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, fashion designer and inventor of the runway show. The story opens with Tess Collins spontaneously hiring on with “Madame” and boarding the doomed ocean liner. By the time boat meets iceberg, she’s already attracted two suitors and begun to assume an inappropriate degree of familiarity with her cruel and capricious new boss. The love triangle plays out as public hearings threaten the Duff Gordon name, and Tess quickly trades in her tea tray for needle and thread as she moves up in the rag trade. The historical backdrop includes a look at the burgeoning movement for women’s suffrage, and some of the dialogue from the hearings is lifted verbatim from Lady Duff Gordon’s actual testimony in a British inquiry. The Dressmaker is a Titanic story, but more than that, a finely stitched work about love and loyalty.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2011 December #2
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. Published to coincide with the centenary of the famous shipping disaster, Alcott's debut wraps a conventional tale of love and wish fulfillment around the much more interesting historical facts. Out of some 2,223 people on board the Titanic, only 706 survived, 60 percent from first class, mainly women, and 25 percent from steerage. The behavior of the privileged, in particular Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and his couturier wife Lady Lucy, raised many questions including rumors of bribery and murder. In Alcott's version, just before the ship leaves Europe, Lady Lucy hires a maid, Tess Collins, whose real passion is designing and sewing clothes. Lucy turns into a selfish, capricious mistress, but Tess endures in hopes of dressmaking work. On board, Tess catches the eye of a wealthy businessman as well as a rock-solid sailor. Then the iceberg intervenes. All these characters survive, but the aftermath in New York is scarcely celebratory, with newspapers gossiping and a Senate inquiry delving into the horrific events. Tess' loyalty and affections will undergo many additional stress tests. While the fictionalizing of real characters, notably Lucy, doesn't wholly convince, there's an appealing, soulful freshness to this shrewdly commercial offering. Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2012 January #1

Seamstress Tess Collins finds her way aboard the Titanic because the maid of renowned designer Lucile Duff Gordon missed the boat. Yet this is not your mother's Titanic story; the ship hits the iceberg on page 37, and the exodus of survivors happens swiftly. What ensues back in New York is an investigation instigated by a senator who wants to prove negligence on the part of the White Star line. New York Times reporter Sarah "Pinky" Wade, however, smells stories of the wealthy and privileged vs. the poor and wants to pin blame on Lucile. Meanwhile, a young sailor and an older businessman both fall in love with Tess, and her responses to them and to the woman who could help her realize her dreams are at the core of this recounting of the tragedy. VERDICT 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. Tess makes a praiseworthy heroine, torn between her loyalties to the woman she so admires and her own principles, but would two men declare their love after knowing Tess for so brief a time? One fewer suitor might have been more plausible. Still, an engaging first novel in this year of everything Titanic.--Bette-Lee Fox, Library Journal

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Library Journal Reviews Newsletter
The sinking of the Titanic a century ago sets the stage for Kate Alcott's gripping novel Inspired by the true-life story of fashion designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, The Dressmaker . Alcott crafts a tightly woven tale of Tess Collins, a young woman who impetuously leaves her job as a housemaid to make her way onto the enormous ship. Tess's and Gordon's fates collide as Tess is taken on as a last-minute replacement for Gordon's missing maid, and they are soon irrevocably bound together. The Senate inquiry into the disaster draws Tess into the center of a conflict, and while she can see that Gordon's behavior in the aftermath of the sinking was questionable, once Tess visits Gordon's workroom in New York, she is smitten by the thought of elevating her own fashionable aspirations. -- "The Reader's Shelf" LJ Reviews 10/4/12 (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2011 October #4

The class tensions, politics, and fashion of the heady 1910s collide in this disappointingly conventional novel set aboard the Titanic and in the aftermath of its sinking. Tenacious Tess Collins, a maid determined to use her seamstress skills to transcend her class, meets world-renowned fashion designer Lucile Duff Gordon just moments before boarding the majestic and doomed ship. Lucile's hesitant agreement to hire Tess as her personal maid sends both women on a life-altering trajectory of volatile friendship, convoluted mentoring, loyalty, and conflict, all of which comes to a head in the wake of their survival. The notoriety and familiarity of the Titanic story demands a fresh retelling, a challenge Alcott, in her fiction debut, doesn't quite meet. Plowing into an iceberg not only sinks the Titanic, it largely sinks Alcott's narrative, as she shifts focus to testimonies, politics, and "Pinky" Wade, a headstrong female journalist making her way in a chauvinistic world and stirring up trouble in Tess's life. 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. (Feb.)

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