Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
Published by: Dutton
Published on: January 15, 2013
Page Count: 352
Genre: historical fiction
My Reading Format: Advanced reading copy, Kindle edition
Available Formats: Hardcover, Kindle and Audible audio editions

Note: This review contains spoilers.

My Review:

This is the story of an unlikely friendship between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her modiste, or dressmaker and dresser Elizabeth Keckley. Keckley, a former slave, sewed dresses for the wives of some of the Civil War era's most notable politicians and built a successful business in the nation's capital. Elizabeth knew the Lincolns very well and was present during some of their most intimate conversations and struggles. After President Lincoln's assassination, Keckley remained one of the First Lady's few true friends. She traveled with her to Chicago to help her set up housekeeping and hold Mrs. Lincoln together emotionally as best she could.

I thought the beginning of the book, while interesting, moved a little slowly for my taste. My favorite parts of this book were when Elizabeth was focused on herself and her business rather than just simply the Lincolns. Also, I thought this book was at its most intriguing when it showed Elizabeth and Mrs. Lincoln's relationship after the White House years.

But, I became frustrated quickly with the sticky situations Elizabeth found herself in over and over with her clients, particularly Mrs. Lincoln. (And, yes, I do realize that I'm looking at the book from a cushy spot in the 21st century.) In her early life Elizabeth had been the property of a kind slaveholding family. As an adult with a clear talent and business sense living in the Union, Elizabeth was still beholden to her clients in a way that meant she had to answer to them differently than she may have had to under different circumstances.

By the end of the book I was very torn about Elizabeth and Mrs. Lincoln's friendship. Mrs. Lincoln had depended upon her modiste and her husband for so long that she couldn't function without them both. Elizabeth was kind-hearted enough not to force Mrs. Lincoln to ever be completely without her. However, I was uncomfortable with Elizabeth's unwavering devotion to the former First Lady as she lost friends, incurred unimaginable amounts of debt and behaved in an unbecoming way. Then, when Mrs. Lincoln dismissed Elizabeth's friendship, I felt indignant and hurt for Elizabeth, who had remained loyal to the Lincolns for so many years.

None of this is to say that Chiaverini didn't do a great job tackling a tough subject, with a person at the center of the narrative whose importance has been lost in our history. I'm always fascinated reading extraordinary stories like this because they are so based in real events.

Former President Abraham Lincoln is receiving lots of attention these days, and I'm glad. I'm also glad some of his contemporaries, namely Elizabeth Keckley, are also finally getting their due.

Happy Presidents Day!

Three and a half out of five stars

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Pride and Prejudice turns 200

One of my favorite novels, Pride and Prejudice, turned 200 this week. Coincidentally, it's what my high school students are reading right now and most of them are really enjoying it. (One student did remark that the Bennet sisters were stuffier than Alcott's March sisters, however.) Since another student expressed genuine surprise this week when I told him I'd never read a graphic novel, I'm going to say that this cartoon from NPR counts.

Just for fun, here are a few photos from my trip to Bath a few years ago where you can still feel immersed in Jane Austen's world.