The Dressmaker's Dowry: A Novel
After years of working for a high-class fashion magazine, Sarah Havensworth has quit to begin writing a historical novel about life on the Barbary Coast. Forever conscious of her lower-middle class beginnings, she hopes that it will win her the respect of her husband’s upper-crust family– and allow her to respect herself enough to forget the terrible secret that’s been haunting her since her youth. While researching her novel, Sarah instead becomes fascinated with the cases of Hannelore and Margaret, two seamstresses who disappeared from the Barbary Coast in the 1800s and were presumed to be murdered. Her novel quickly turns into a piece of investigative journalism.
We then learn about Hanna and Margaret’s lives through chapters told through their eyes. Hanna, supporting her siblings and protecting them from a drunken and abusive father; and Margaret the only support for her large family – spend their lives working for the abusive Mrs. Cunningham sewing dresses the likes of which they could never afford. While Hanna is practical about her downtrodden life, Margaret is lively and cheerful, dancing at night in spite of the pressure of her enormous family, hopeful that someday she will be one of the society women she must serve. Hope arrives in the form of the upper-crust Lucas, who becomes protective of both women and develops an interest in Hanna. One night, Hanna takes a risk and goes with Lucas to the theatre, setting into motion a chain of events that includes the disappearance of her dear friend. As Hanna searches for her, she tries to protect her siblings and keep alive their hope of taking a northward train to a better life, all the while falling more and more deeply in love with Lucas.
Past and present collide as Sarah’s research causes her to dig deeper into the Havensworth family’s past, disturbing her father-in-law, Walter, who would prefer those secrets stay buried. Soon Hanna and Margaret’s lives lie in the balance – and Sarah, too, finds herself caught up in a dangerous place when she tries to protect her friend from sexual harassment at their old job – and figures out the charming Lucas is actually an ancestor of her husband’s – and that he might have been involved in the disappearances of both Hanna and Margaret. When a blackmailer tries to prevent her from taking her research to the next step, Sarah must face up to her past in order to claim a future of her own.
The Dressmaker’s Dowry would probably benefitted from sticking to one only one of its two storylines. While Hanna and Margaret have minor depth, they are stock female characters, maternal and downtrodden, that have existed in fiction since cuneiform was invented – both are very sympathetic and leagues more compelling than the jejune Sarah, who feels guilt over her husband supporting her flights of fancy and his battling the strength of her ‘horrible secret’ which no person would actually blame her for. Does she want to have a baby? Intensely. Does she want to write a novel that exposes the Havensworth family secrets? Intensely. Does the reader feel either of these emotions? Hardly. Sarah floats uneasily through social situations, with everyone around her reminding her nonstop that she’s about to (GASP!) turn thirty! She’s a good friend and easy enough to relate to, but it’s hard to sympathize with her when you have characters like Hanna and Margaret literally battling for their lives in the other part of the book. As for why she’s being blackmailed – I have absolutely no idea why even the most austere of families would go to such lengths to hide a dark family secret that’s hundreds of years old. Think of what we know about the scandalous antics of hundreds of Vanderbilts, Kennedys and Astors in ye old modern days and you’ll see how ludicrous the plot is.
The solution to both of the big mysteries lurking within the text are also simple to solve (Ebert’s law of economy characters strikes again). Suffice it to say the heroine’s crimes are made understandable and anyone who seems overtly evil probably is. The biggest hindrance to the mystery being effective is that Sarah is always four steps behind the chapters written from Hanna’s point of view, so we already know what she’s struggling to discover.
Part of me wants to rate each half of the book differently; the modern chapters an F, the historical chapters a C. The end grade is a D+. There’s much room for improvement in The Dressmaker’s Dowry, and I hope the author will continue to grow.