Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Folds compelling story into Titanic tragedy....Seamlessly stitching fact and fiction together, Alcott creates a hypnotic tale." USA Today
"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
"If you want a fictional escape [about the Titanic], then it's time to turn to a new novel called The Dressmaker...the book explores complicated gender dynamics of the time, and offers a heroine you can really root for." NPR's All Things Considered
"Kate Alcott seamlessly stitches fact and fiction together creating this wonderfully colorful book. This story has many layers and reaches far beyond the tragedy of the Titanic...riveting....This novel is steeped in truth woven together with fiction making this Titanic tale feel like one never told before...beautifully told and really examines loss, love, survival and the choices made in between." The Examiner
"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
"Brims with engrossing storytelling....For fans of Sarah Jio, Susanna Kearsley, and immigrant tales." Booklist
"While reading The Dressmaker, I felt as if I were actually living and breathing the events before, during and after the tragedy....The novel is filled with the atmosphere, clothes, and historical figures of the times, including the Astors, 'The Unsinkable' Molly Brown, and J. Bruce Ismay, the White Star's Managing Director, who cowardly boarded a lifeboat before others." Huffington Post
"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....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
“Kate Alcott’s The Dressmaker is a beautifully told story that examines loss, love, couture and the choices we make when everything is on the line — all sewn together into one compelling read. I can’t stop thinking about this book and its characters.” Sarah Jio, author of The Violets of March and The Bungalow
"We're all riveted by a tragedy, but what happens to the survivors? The Dressmaker is that rare novel that asks not only what comes next but what we would do in a morally unspeakable situation — and how we live with those choices. A brave, truly gripping novel." Jenna Blum, author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers
“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
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 her personal maid on the Titanic.
Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men — a kind sailor and an enigmatic Chicago businessman — who offer differing views of what lies ahead for her in America. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes, and amidst the chaos, Tess is one of the last people allowed on a lifeboat.
The survivors are rescued and taken to New York, but when rumors begin to circulate about the choices they made, Tess is forced to confront a serious question. Did Lady Duff Gordon save herself at the expense of others? Torn between loyalty to Lucile and her growing suspicion that the media’s charges might be true, Tess must decide whether to stay quiet and keep her fiery mentor’s good will or face what might be true and forever change her future.
About the Author
Kate Alcott is a journalist who has covered politics in Washington, DC, where she currently lives.
Reading Group Guide
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?