Oh, covers. Oh, titles. How you beguile me with your deceptive ways. These are not the fault of the author; no, not at all. They are the fault of the publishers and marketers who decide that a book is meant for a certain audience. This book seems to be marketed at someone looking for a period piece about a woman trying to elevate herself in life through quality work. What's it really about? The Titanic, its sinking, and the aftermath, as viewed through the lenses of a handful of characters, only two of which are actually dressmakers and only one of which the title actually refers to. Deceptive indeed. Among the characters who are not dressmakers are a female reporter, a female author/script-writer, a sailor, a British aristo, and a senator, most of whom all have their own segments of the book that have absolutely nothing to do with dressmaking and often have very little to do with "the dressmaker" of the title.
The character the title focuses on is Tess, who is arguable the "main" character of the novel and its heroine, though there's really an ensemble cast at work here. Tess was one of my biggest issues with this novel. On one hand, she knows what she wants and isn't afraid to go get it, and knows what she's worth. On the other hand, she's still confused about some areas of her feelings (*coughRELATIONSHIPScough*) and is torn between different aspects of her life that, while not changing her overall goals, maker her question how to best go about achieving them without compromising her morals. These are all very realistic drives and emotions. What wasn't so realistic is Tess herself. She's from France but doesn't speak France, seems to of ambiguous national origin, and has a muddled social background as well; her family is very poor and pretty much sold Tess into servitude, and yet she knows how to ride horses with some skill and knows all manner of social niceties, though she doesn't always bother to use them. This made her a less-than-convincing character, and I think I know why: she's the only character who isn't real.
Here's the thing. None of Alcott's other characters had to be created from scratch. They were all real people, though these are fictionalized versions of them. Alcott relied heavily on the testimony of the Titanic trials for her novels, though she does blend the US and UK ones a bit. Still, the other people were real, and even if some of their actions and motivations and words were fictionalized, they still came from the same backgrounds. It seems like Alcott relied heavily on that and got a little sloppy on the creation of her one main fictional character as a result. The ending also flip-flopped; like Alcott wanted a bittersweet one but got pressured into just making it sweet instead, and seems weaker for that.
Also, I can never keep Nellie Bly and Pinky Wade straight, even though I know they're different people from different times. But that's not actually Alcott's fault.
I intended to use this as a book for my Popsugar reading challenge to fulfill the category of "A book set in your hometown." Nothing is actually set in my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania (at least nothing that Google turned up!) so I went with my second and current home of Washington, DC instead. This...kind of fulfills the category. Bits of it take place in DC, but much of it takes place in New York. I thought it would be more balanced from the bookjacket description, but I guess I'll count it for now. If something better turns up in my sights between now and the end of the year, I'll swap that out instead.
Overall, I think the book had a strong central moral premise that focused around the Titanic tragedy, but the main character wasn't entirely convincing and the ending similarly lacked strong conviction.
3.5 stars out of 5.