The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker by Kate AlcottGuest Reviewer: Ronnie Kutys

Full Title: The Dressmaker: A Novel
Kate Alcott
Publisher: Doubleday (2012)
Number of Pages: 320
How long it took me to read: 3 days
Where I bought this book: I was able to borrow a digital advanced reader’s copy (ARC) from the publisher.
ISBN: 978-0385535588

Like a Moth to a Flame

Everyone knows how any story of the Titanic will end. The boat must always sink, lest it not be true to history. However, The Dressmaker does not focus on the Titanic itself, but on some of the passengers and what happens after they safely escape the wreck. I don’t particularly enjoy straightforward history books and most books about the Titanic work out to be just linear accounts of what happened, but this one seemed different. Most books about the Titanic don’t touch on what happens to the survivors after they are rescued and how their lives changed, but this one draws us into their complicated worlds.

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Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “All she knew right now was that when she emerged she would be faced with the ordeal of trying to comfort the woman who only days before was the most invulnerable woman she had ever met.” (p.117)

4. “The fog lifted. And there it was, looming so high, so proud and separate, it seemed to rule the sea, not the other way around. Four huge smokestacks reaching gracefully toward the sky. Nine decks, and Tess felt her neck aching from the effort as she counted them. No wonder it was called the Titanic.” (p.10)

3. “I’ve enjoyed over the years being the quiet supporter who could make things work for you. But not anymore. It isn’t just this caterwauling American press tearing my reputation apart. It’s the fact that you see me far more as a servant than as a husband. Just one more obedient follower doing the bidding of the great Lucile…I’ve made the mistake of letting you get away with it for too long.” (p.251)

2. “Lucile’s nature wouldn’t change. It would always be to praise and criticize and goad and condemn, ensnaring everyone into a constant dance of trying to please, running harder, doing anything to please Madame. Not only could she see the web; she could feel it, and she’d not let its sticky pleasures catch her again.” (p.283)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Oh, the carpet was soft. And now she could reach out and actually touch one of the velvet chairs. She could inhale the aroma of many perfumes, see the gold-crusted dining plates filled with exotic food, hear the light talk and laughter that rippled across the well-behaved room, laughter as sparkling as the sea. So much, all at once. White-clad waiters moving solicitously among the tables; diamond rings flashing each time a glass was hoisted; men hovering close to women in low-cut gowns. She didn’t recognize the music the orchestra was playing, but she loved it and knew she would never forget it.” (p.34)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Tess is that heroine that I want to root for. She’s the underdog that I want to love. When she leaves the household in Cherbourg, Tess is desperate to find passage on the Titanic. However, the only passage she can find is as Lucile Duff Gordon’s main. Dealing with Lucile’s ever-changing moods makes Tess seem like a saint! Lucile goes from happy to melancholic in seconds. Tess is not perfect, but she has the simplicity about her that makes her irresistibly lovable. She is naïve in some sense, but mostly, she just follows her heart and will do what she must for her friends. Tess is an extremely admirable character, that friend that you want to introduce to the world while keeping close watch to make sure she’s safe.”

“Though I can’t forget that the Titanic sunk and that event is one of the most pivotal moments of the book, the action lies not in the sinking of the ship, but in the aftermath. We barely know each of the characters when the Titanic sinks. The majority of the character development comes after, when each person must deal with the consequences of their actions that fateful night. It is surprising, not so much that some of the characters reacted negatively in a life and death situation, but that so many acted as heroes. Alcott does not try to hide from the fact that moral dilemmas arise in these situations; she has a masterful way of showing that there are a multitude of reactions. I find myself questioning how I would react. Would I be Tess, Jim, or Lucile?

“The three characters are all very different. Tess is such a do-good character, but her naïveté makes her seem weak at first, which made me feel sorry for her. Jim, on the other hand, is a strong character that knows what is right and will do what is right no matter what the consequences. He’s the type of character that makes me feel safe and secure in the knowledge that he will do what is necessary to make things right. Lucile is a little harder to like. She just inspires a feeling of distaste in me, especially when she talks down to Tess. Her idea of right and wrong is skewed in her favor. I’d like to think I would react as Jim or even as Tess does on the Titanic. They are both admirable, albeit in different ways.”

“Pinky is a strange character. I like her and yet I don’t. I know she has a lot to deal with between work and her ailing father, but it’s almost as if she wants Tess and Lucile to fail in overcoming the events on the Titanic. At first, I didn’t think she had a conscience, but then she does what she can to help Tess and Jim. She carries messages for each of them, even though she has a personal stake in what happens between them. It’s almost a reflection of her relationship with her father. She thinks he doesn’t care about her but there are moments when he surprises her. Pinky seems not to care about anyone, and then she surprises me by falling in love. It’s the unexpected characters that I think leave the most lasting impression with me.”

“Cosmo Duff Gordon is an enigma. Why does he let Lucile run the show? How can he put up with her? I dislike him. Did he push people off of their lifeboat? I can’t help thinking that all the accusations aimed at Lucile should be directed at Cosmo instead. Cosmo is ruthless in doing everything he can to ensure Lucile’s success. He has no qualm about hurting others, physically or mentally. My dislike for him overshadows my pity for their sham of a marriage that seems to have been one of convenience, not love. There is hardly a positive word passed between the two, which makes me dislike Cosmo even more. He gave Lucile a title when he married her, but seems to get nothing in return, not love nor appreciation.”

“This book is so different from many that I’ve read. I don’t think it is a story I will forget anytime soon. There are many books that look at the concept of morality from different perspectives. The Dressmaker looks at morality but takes it one step farther. It makes the reader question herself. Can you condemn someone for making a decision in a life-threatening situation? Can you argue that there is no way you would have made the same or similar decision? I’m constantly questioning whether or not I would be able to stick to my beliefs as Jim does or if I would lose all semblance of morality in the face of death. Can you know the right answer in life and death situations? Is there a right answer? I have realized that morality is not a simple question of right and wrong and that no matter what the situation is, you cannot judge someone else’s decisions because you don’t know what that person was feeling. You just never know.”


  1. Ronnie Kutys says:

    Sometimes you may shake your head at Tess, but she represents one of the more interesting stories of what may have happened after the Titanic sunk. I can just imagine her being completely awed at the sight of the Titanic. Let me know what you think of the book :)

  2. Alex W. says:

    I’ve seen this book a couple of places and I’ve been wanting to read it. I’m glad Tess is a heroine I can get behind and I think my favorite quote you listed was number 4 with titanic ruling the sea. :)

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