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A New Look at Titanic

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott (Doubleday; 320 pages; $25.95).

            This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the doomed ocean liner Titanic, once thought to be unsinkable.  To commemorate the event, James Cameron’s 90s blockbuster movie Titanic returns to the big screen, this time in 3-D.  I am certain the History Channel and National Geographic will feature many documentaries as we get closer to April.  But you, dear reader, do not have to wait.  Novelist Kate Alcott (real name Patricia O’Brien) takes on the Titanic in her debut novel The Dressmaker.

Alcott’s protagonist is Tess.  When we first meet her, she is nothing more than a servant.  But Tess wants more.  Her dream is to become a seamstress, and she knows the only way to follow her dream is to go to America.  She has heard that a huge ship in need of workers and servants is just about to set sail.  With little more than the clothes on her back, Tess goes to the docks only to be told she is too late to be hired.  Alcott creates such a determined character in Tess, though.  When she sees an opportunity, she takes it.  For Tess, opportunity comes in the form of Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, a designer.  Lucile needs a ladies’ maid and hires Tess.

Titanic sets sail on its maiden voyage.  Alcott’s writing drags until the ship hits the iceberg.  Then, she almost hurries through the ship’s sinking.  Then again, perhaps I am accustomed to the movie.  I admit it was difficult not to picture the backdrop of the movie and even some of the people Alcott mentions as those actors in Titanic.

The beauty of this book reveals itself only after the ship has sunk and when the survivors gather on the Carpathia.  This is where Alcott’s storytelling is fresh and intriguing.  It is on the Carpathia where we are privy to the first whispers that something horrible happened on the rescue boat the Duff Gordons were on.  Tess gets on a different boat and so she herself does not know what occurred.  The whispers grow louder.

When the Carpathia arrives in New York, so do the reporters.  I find I like one of them more than I like even Alcott’s major character.  For me, Pinky, a female reporter trying to prove herself, has spunk and drive.  She is interesting and likeable.

Tess finds herself torn between two very different men, and her inability to choose grates me.   She is also too often cowed by Lucile.  Alcott, though, does a superb job of turning Lucile into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde-type character.

Meanwhile, a powerful senator investigates why the Titanic sank and what happened in its aftermath.  He calls for hearings.  It is here where Alcott shines.  Lucile testifies.  Alcott uses literary license when she does this; Lucile never actually testified.  But the hearings were real.  Alcott takes historical facts and re-imagines them in such a way you must do your research to see what is accurate and what is not.  During the hearings, we finally learn exactly what the Duff Gordons and another couple did on the rescue boat.  Their actions will shock you and also make you think.  What would you do if you were in that kind of situation?

If you are looking for a Rose and Jack type of love story like in the movie Titanic, you will not find that here.  What you will find is what happens after and how this horrible tragedy affects the lives of the survivors.  Alcott does deliver on that.  She gives us a new look at Titanic at a time when everyone will be remembering the ship that was, indeed, sinkable.

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