The Dressmaker ~ Kate Alcott

The story begins in Cherbourg where we find Tess, a young aspiring seamstress who is working as a maid in a country house. The Titanic is set to sail and Tess is desperate for a passage aboard the ship – all she wants to do is start a new life in America as a designer. As luck would have it Tess meets the infamous talented designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon who as by chance is in need of a personal maid to accompany her on the trans-Atlantic voyage – a role Tess happily accepts. Once aboard the magnificent ship Tess is fascinated not only with the ship herself but also with the people on board – and a two men soon became charmed by her as well, one a rough but charming sailor, the other a mysterious Chicago millionaire. The trip proceeds as planned until the fourth night when disaster strikes and the unsinkable ship does the unthinkable and sinks, taking most of her passengers down with her to their watery graves.

Tess is one of the lucky ones who manage to find space on one of the few lifeboats as do the Duff Gordons and her sailor Jim Bonney albeit on different boats. In Tess’ boat, she must take charge along with Mrs. Molly Brown to row their capacity filled boat to safety. The story is much different in lifeboat 1 with the Duff Gordons – the boat was launched prematurely with only 12 people aboard including Jim Bonney, witness to Lady Duff Gordon’s questionable actions in the face of the tragedy. Once they arrive on dry land rumors about the actions and choices of the survivors begin to swirl and Lady Duff Gordon quickly becomes the subject of media scorn and later, the Senate hearings on the Titanic.


This novel is just in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the unsinkable ship Titanic. It was not your typical book about this tragedy – its focus is not on the disaster itself but on the aftermath. Although the focus of the novel wasn’t on the ship actually sinking, I wanted more about the actual event. I wanted more details about what it was like for the characters; their thoughts, their feelings, more emotion. I just felt like it happened too fast and that the main event was almost brushed over to get to the main point of the novel – the repercussions. A lot of what happened that night was later revealed during the trials, through flashbacks and testimonies, but again not in detail and not a lot of emotion – I wanted more from the hearings. By the end of the book, I had a pretty good idea of what happened in lifeboat 1, but again there were so many holes in the stories being told that the question remains unanswered – the reader can believe what they want but I felt like it was left unfinished.

I have to say that I totally loved the characters – especially the strong-female characters that you wouldn’t normally find. The characters were (almost) all believable and realistic. Tess, she knew what she was worth and what she wanted and she was not going to let anything or anyone stand in the way of her dreams and she definitely wouldn’t compromise her values to get there either; Pinky Wade, a female reporter for the Times who is paid 50 cents an hour who is assigned the human-interest story of the Titanic who must fight for equality in the workplace because she is the best reporter on staff (or so she thinks); Molly Brown, a fierce woman who wants to testify about the events on that faithful night; and even Lucile Duff Gordon, an enterprising woman in a man’s world trying to make a name for herself. The only problem I have with the characters is that they had some very strange and unexplained relationships that didn’t always make sense – for example, what’s up with Lucile and her sister Elinor? And why is Pinky so concerned about Jim and Tess’ relationship considering she barely knows either one of them? As amazing as the characters were, there was really no clear distinction between who was good and who was bad. Everyone loves a hero and everyone loves a villain even more but there really was no clear villain and even the heroes (ahem Lowe, Bonney) weren’t very heroically written either.

As for the romance, the love triangle, it was tangible at best. First of all, I have absolutely no sympathy for a young woman who has not one but two dashing men who are completely and utterly head over heels in love with her. Nope, none at all. Guy number one: Jack … he is probably twice her age, a millionaire from Chicago, divorced once and currently in the process of divorcing wife number two, but is still technically (and legally) married to her. Guy number two: Jim … a crude sailor who is an amazing woodworker and who tells the truth about what happened on lifeboat 1 – therefore coming between Tess and her boss Lady Duff Gordon. Jack kind of seemed like a slime ball – he was still married and was courting another woman, half his age, come on now. I really wanted more about sailor Jim – he really deserved more page time.

There were unquestionably parts of this book that gave me goose bumps – the cook’s wife waiting for her children that would never come; the terrified passengers stuck on the sinking boat; some of the testimonies from the survivors – I only wish that there had been more of these moments but they most definitely made the book hard to put down. I think that the major point of this novel was for the reader to reflect, to look inside themself and to really think about the choices that they have made. The choices we make every day not only affect ourselves, but also the people around us and how they perceive us. I think that as the reader I was constantly asking myself what I would have done if I were to have been in that situation – would you stand up for what you believe in no matter what the personal cost or would you turn your back on those you love? Would you choose to follow your heart or your head? How would you defend these choices?

I am really hoping that there will be a sequel – I don’t want to let these characters go just yet! I think that it would be great for the story of Tess, Pinky and Molly to continue on as these three women forge ahead into the new world where women began to gain ground in their quest for equality. I would strongly recommend this novel to anyone who has a soft spot for the Titanic or those who like historical fiction and who would enjoy a quick, easy read. 

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