Saturday, January 26, 2013

Auf Wiedersehen

In The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott, Tess Collins is a young woman working as a maid, who is desperate to start a new life for herself.  She has heard of a job opportunity working on an ocean liner, and is anxious to give it a try.   Alas, when she gets to the ship, they have already filled all of their positions.  Then Tess notices a very elegant woman arguing with a man about someone who was supposed to work as her servant on the ship, but refused to make the trip.  Tess learns that the woman is the famous designer, Lucy Duff Gordon, and rushes in to take the place of her maid.  Tess convinces Lucy to take a chance on her by showing Lucy the handiwork on her own clothes, and promising that she is good at sewing buttons.  And that is how Tess finds herself sailing for America aboard the Titanic.

Once aboard, Tess realizes that she is competing in her own private Project Runway, with Lucy serving as a very harsh judge.  Everything changes when, well, you know what happens next.  

Anyhow, in real life and in the novel, Lucy and her husband survive aboard lifeboat 1, with 10 other passengers.  Tess doesn't make it to that lifeboat, but I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that she does manage to find her way to America.  On the Carpathia, where the movie, "Titanic" ends, the drama in The Dressmaker begins.   Even before the survivors make it to the dock, an inquiry has begun into why the Titanic sank, and why so few passengers survived.  Tess becomes friendly with a crewman who was in the Duff Gordon's lifeboat, and quickly begins to worry that the Duff Gordons were not exactly heroic in their escape.  Heidi Klum always tells Project Runway contestants, "As you know in fashion, one day you're in. And the next day, you're out".  Lucy learns this as public opinion turns against her even before she can show her latest designs.

Once in America, Tess makes friends with a writer covering the story of the Titanic survivors, Pinky Wade.  Pinky teaches Tess about life in America for real women, in contrast to life for the extremely wealthy, which Tess learns about from Lucy.  Tess also feels a connection with her fellow survivors, the unsinkable Margaret Brown, and a first class millionaire who Alcott appears to have created but who was likely based on a real life survivor.  I really liked how Alcott intertwined true stories of the survivors with fictional characters.  I found myself checking the list of survivors on Wikipedia to see which characters were really aboard the Titanic and which Alcott created. 

For the movie, because there really should be a movie for this one, I would suggest Kate Winslet as Lucy Duff Gordon.  Kate's too old to play Tess now, but I would love to see her on the Titanic again.  Also, the movie needs to close with "Suffragette" by Nina Gordon playing in the final scene.  Who knew we would need a 21st century song about suffragettes?  Nina Gordon and Kate Alcott did.

This is one more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge!

Next up on CD:  Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Still Reading:  My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss

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