Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review: "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker"

"Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" by Jennifer Chiaverini
First published in 2013
My rating: 3 out of 5

(image source)

Elizabeth Keckley was an amazing woman -- bright, strong, courageous, selfless, fiercely loyal and extraordinarily talented at her craft of dressmaking. Born into slavery, at 38 Elizabeth finally raised enough money to purchase her freedom and her son's, then made her way to Washington, D.C., where she quickly became the top dressmaker to Washington's elite.

She was in the nation's capital to witness the historic election of Abraham Lincoln, and Elizabeth's sterling reputation as the best mantua-maker in Washington soon gained her a role as the new First Lady's personal dressmaker. Through the war-torn years of Abraham Lincoln's presidency, Elizabeth became a close family friend to the Lincolns and eventually grew to be Mary Lincoln's closest friend and confidante.

I really enjoyed the parts of this rooted-in-fact novel that were about Elizabeth, who in her long and eventful life witnessed the making of so much history first-hand. But a good deal of the novel wasn't directly about the great and fascinating Elizabeth but rather often and repetitively about Mary Lincoln and her myriad problems. This portrait of Mary Lincoln paints her as vain, naive, thin-skinned, whiny, meddling and impulsive, complete with reckless spending habits and wild mood swings. She makes a good foil for Elizabeth, whose calm, confident, rational manner is so different, and I understand that her work for and friendship with Mary Lincoln was a defining part of Elizabeth's life. But, while the book claimed to be about the immensely likeable Elizabeth, I thought it instead focused too much on the rather annoying and frustrating -- and somewhat pitiable -- character of Mary Lincoln.

While it was definitely well-written, I found "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" to be a bit boring and hard to get through. I'm typically not a non-fiction fan, and the play-by-play of Civil War battles was on the dry side. I know it's possible for a mostly true story in novel form to be a page-turner because Laura Hillenbrand's WWII tale "Unbroken" was. But Chiaverini didn't have as much success making Elizabeth Keckley's story into a gripping novel. Still, I learned a few things and I definitely have a new appreciation for that kind-looking black woman who appeared by Mrs. Lincoln's side in the movie "Lincoln."
I like to have visuals for things I'm reading about in novels, so of course I had to find a picture of this stunning quilt, which Elizabeth Keckley is said to have made of leftover scraps from Mrs. Lincoln's dresses. There's a dark eagle in the middle with the word "liberty" underneath, and a golden eagle on each side of the quilt. It looks quite a bit different than I imagined from the description in the book -- so lovely! And apparently it's on display at a museum here in Ohio. Hmm... road trip? (image source)

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