'The Dressmaker' mixes history with fiction to tell Titanic's tragedy in terms of class and survival

By Cait Orton

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, July 14 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

"THE DRESSMAKER," by Kate Alcott, Doubleday, $25.95, 320 pages (f)

The sinking of the Titanic is one of the blackest marks caused by human error, and it’s a story that’s been retold countless times. Each story ends the same: The unsinkable ship plummets to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

But Kate Alcott, the pen name for journalist Patricia O’Brien, brings a fresh angle in her novel “The Dressmaker.” She begins by introducing Tess, an English servant and seamstress. Staring out the window of her mistress’ house, Tess dreams of leaving and starting over in America.

The answer to Tess’s dreams is the Titanic. So to the Titanic she goes, with or without a ticket.

As the massive ship is boarded, Tess finds Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, a famous designer who is getting ready for her first New York show. Lucile needs a maid, and Tess jumps to the opportunity. She does Lucile’s bidding, steaming her dresses and fetching her tea. Lucile sees Tess as a seamstress with potential, and she offers her a place in her world.

Despite Tess’s desperation to become a designer herself, Lucile is cold and makes her wonder if she can be trusted. But this all seems trivial once the ship is rocked by an iceberg.

And so the ship splits in two, surrounded by screams and endless darkness. Alcott paints a vivid picture of hopes and dreams for those aboard the ship, keeping readers at bay and uneasy.

Lucile boards one lifeboat, while Tess miraculously boards another.

But “The Dressmaker” doesn’t focus on those hours of chaos when Titanic’s passengers scrambled for their lives. It centers on the inquiries afterward and the integrity of the privileged versus the poor.

Alcott refocuses her plot on Lucile who was one of 12 survivors on Lifeboat One, a vessel that could have held up to 60 people. Among the other 11 were the rich and privileged and a handful of sailors. Lucile quickly builds a wall around herself, leading journalists, politicians and Tess to wonder why Lifeboat One was nearly empty and why they hadn’t picked up survivors from the wreckage.

“The Dressmaker” isn’t a story about the Titanic sinking, as Alcott spent few words on what readers imagine would be the climax. It’s a tale about Tess, a simpleton caught in a tragedy, and torn every which way by class, money, dreams and not knowing who to trust.

But more importantly, Alcott’s novel ponders whether surviving the Titanic was enough for the lucky few on the lifeboats, or if would they be haunted by the wailing passengers they could have saved if all the lifeboats had gone back.

Aside from mild descriptions of the Titanic’s victims, floating then sinking among the wreckage, Alcott’s novel is clean. It highlights the somewhat maternal relationship between Lucile and Tess, along with delving into Tess’s longing for family and love.

If you go ...

What: Kate Alcott book signing

When: Wednesday, July 18, 7 p.m.

Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City

Web: kingsenglish.com

Email: orton.cait@gmail.com

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