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Posts Tagged ‘The Dressmaker’

Good historical novels mix fiction with fact as they anchor readers in past time and place. So I’ve recently sweltered under the sun at an antebellum plantation in the Mississippi Delta, survived the sinking of the Titanic and its aftermath, enjoyed the pleasures of belle epoque Amsterdam, and listened to the tales of a German-American family in early 20th-century Missouri.

Jonathan Odell’s The Healing (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley via NetGalley) casts a spell with its story of the slave girl Granada, singled out first by the plantation mistress as a pet and then by the enigmatic healer Polly Shine, who takes her as a reluctant apprentice. In 1933, the now-elderly Gran-Gran recalls her youth and Polly’s impact on her fellow slaves for an orphaned girl in need of stories:

“The expression on Violet’s face was rapt, even hungry. But for what? For her words? For the tales of folks long dead? Polly used to say that it was the people’s story that kept them bound to one another. Everybody holds their own thread.”

So many compelling stories have been told about the Titanic that it’s a challenge for a writer to discover a fresh angle that also is credible. But in The Dressmaker (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley via NetGalley), Kate Alcott’s fictional seamstress Tess is hired by the very real London-based designer Lady Lucille Duff Gordon. On the fourth night of their voyage aboard the doomed Titanic, the ship hits an iceberg and Tess finds herself in the infamous “Millionaire’s Lifeboat” with her imperious employer.

It’s hard not to see images from the movies Titanic and A Night to Remember in the first part of Alcott’s atmospheric narrative, but then come the legal inquiries into the survivors’ accounts of the tragedy and subsequent behavior, and Tess comes into her own as a memorable young woman with divided loyalties and loves.

Richard Mason’s lushly written History of a Pleasure Seeker (Knopf, advance readers copy) revels in the adventures of 24-year-old Piet Barol in 1907 Amsterdam. Piet is intelligent, handsome, charming, ambitious and drawn to the finer things in life, but he lacks the money to support his champagne tastes. So he takes a job as tutor to the phobic son of one of the city’s wealthier families and uses his personal and physical charms to insinuate himself into the household bedrooms, upstairs and downstairs, male and female. Yes, our Piet is more than a bit of a cad, but his relationship with neglected wife Jacobina proves to be the catalyst that eventually sends him on his maybe-merry way. This pleasant and evocative period piece left me — like Piet — wanting more.

More is not a problem with Alex George’s lively, old-fashioned and operatic family saga, A Good American (Putnam, advance readers copy), which begins with oversized Frederick Meisenheimer and his bride Jette’s 1904 departure for America. The couple eventually land in the small Missouri town of Beatrice, where true assimilation begins and World War I threatens. George incorporates so many set pieces and subplots that they tend to distract from his main narrative, recounted with many flourishes by Frederick’s grandson. The Meisenheimers’ love of music and their new country sees them through triumph and tragedy, and George’s ready storytelling buoys readers on history’s tides.

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