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.
"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." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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 seamstress who survives the disaster only to find herself deeply torn between two men and 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 rugged but sensitive sailor and the other a mysterious Chicago millionaire. All survive the sinking, but Lady Duff Gordon's actions during the disaster make her the subject of media scorn and later the hearings on the Titanic. Torn between admiration for the designer and dismay at her behavior, and between two very different suitors, Tess must navigate the complex waters of life and love. 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 as well as all the thrilling excitement of young love.
The captivating story of two sisters born into privilege, forced to make their way in a world turned upside down by war, and the man who, against all expectation, transforms them both.
The captivating story of two sisters born into privilege, forced to make their way in a world turned upside down by war, and the man who, against all expectation, transforms them both
It is 1910. Jessica and Phyllis Melville have grown up at Ellinghurst, their family estate. A headstrong beauty, Jessica longs for London — the glitter and glamor of debutante life — while bookish Phyllis dreams in vain of attending the university. Neither girl questions that it is Theo, their adored brother, whom their mother loves best. Theo eclipses everyone around him, including diffident Oskar Grunewald — a prodigy in the rapidly evolving fields of math and physics — who with his mother is a frequent visitor to Ellinghurst. Fascinated by the house but alternately tormented and ignored by the Melville children, Oskar seeks refuge in Ellinghurst’s enormous library. Over the next decade, as the Great War devastates and reshapes their world, the sisters come of age in a country unrecognizable from the idylls of their youth. As they struggle to forge new paths in a world that no longer plays by the old rules, Oskar’s life becomes entwined with theirs once again, in ways that will change all of their futures forever.
Two sisters, born into privilege, are forced to make their way in a world turned upside down by war. One man transforms them both.
1910. Jessica and Phyllis Melville have grown up at Ellinghurst, a family estate fraught with secrets. A headstrong beauty, Jessica longs for London — the glitter and glamour of debutante life — while bookish Phyllis dreams in vain of attending university. Into their midst walks Oskar Grunewald, a frequent visitor fascinated by the house but alternately tormented and ignored by the Melville children. Oskar seeks refuge in Ellinghurst’s enormous library. Meanwhile Theo, the adored Melville brother, eclipses everyone around him.
The Great War arrives to devastate and reshape their world. In a country unrecognizable from the idylls of their youth, the Melville sisters struggle to forge new paths without the guidance of the old rules. But Oskar’s life has become entwined with theirs once again, in ways—both immediate and unimaginable-- that will change all of their futures.
With elegance and insight, in prose characteristically “stirring and seductive” (The Economist) Clare Clark brings us a new story of a kind of old family whose reckoning with change will haunt and resonate for many generations.
About the Author
CLARE CLARK is the author of four novels, including The Great Stink, which was long-listed for the Orange Prize and named a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and Savage Lands, also long-listed for the Orange Prize. Her work has been translated into five languages. She lives in London.
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. Øfficer 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?