Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Review: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

Thanks to Dutton for asking me to review Jennifer Chiaverini's latest book, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker.  I was provided with a copy of the book to read and review.  And I have to give them kudos for sending a nice hardback copy.

I have to say that in my school days I was not an fan of history.  In fact, my knowledge of history is probably lacking in many areas.  However, once a subject intrigues me, I will research it until I am satisfied.   So going into the book I was not all that knowledgeable about the years Mr. Lincoln was in office and even less so about his wife.  I learned a lot from this book since Mrs. Chiaverini did her research well.   Interestingly, my Nana had been to see the movie, Lincoln.  She had told me some of the things that I read in the book. It was a nice validation.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is told from the perspective of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who bought her freedom.  The story starts prior to her meeting Mary Todd Lincoln.  It was interesting to read the story from her point of view.  It is also interesting to see how the political insights into the start of the civil war.  Friends and even family members became "enemies" when it came to battle. The escalation of the civil war is essential to the story (and it is history.)
The real story here is how two women  of vastly different standing socially became friends and shared so many life events.  Mary Todd Lincoln is portrayed differently in this book than in most things you see or read.  Let me share a part of an interview with Jennifer Chiaverini:

President Lincoln is often characterized by his calm, thoughtful, and wise demeanor. The same, however, can’t be said for Mrs. Lincoln. In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, you paint a picture of a complex,  yet fascinating woman with mood swings and emotional outbursts but who also possesses a strong and confident presence. Can you describe your insights on her character? Why is she such an intriguing person, not just in your book but also in history?

Despite the volumes of historical and psychological research devoted to Mary Lincoln, she remains an enigma. She was the first wife of a US president to be called First Lady, and she was then and remains to this day one of the most controversial. Regrettably, descriptions of her tend to fall into the extremes of caricature: She is either portrayed as an unstable, shrill, vicious, corrupt shrew who made President Lincoln utterly miserable, or as a devoted wife and mother and a brilliant, shrewd, political helpmeet whose reputation was savaged by biased male historians. As a friend and confidante who observed Mary Lincoln closely in moments of triumph as well as tragedy, Elizabeth Keckley knew her as a real woman, full of flaws and virtues and surprises like any other. It was this far more nuanced woman that
Elizabeth Keckley depicted in the pages of her memoir, and since Elizabeth Keckley is my narrator, I shaped the character of Mary Lincoln according to her perceptions.

I really think that the use of Elizabeth Keckley's character describing Mrs. Lincoln gives us a vision of the woman that is more true that either extreme. 

I should tell you that I read this book quickly as it is hard to put down.  I was intrigued by the characterizations as well as the history in the book. 

I must confess that the ending seemed lacking but I do not fault the author for that.  She was bound by the actual history and remained as true to it as possible in a work of fiction.
That said,  I still highly recommend this book.  The release date is  January 15th and you can pre-order on


JJ said...

I will have to go to the movie and read the book. History was my favorite subject, it always interested me, I am not knowledgeable but I do love it. Thanks for the wonderful review!

Cindy said...

I saw the movie LINCOLN as well, Gene. I just love that ERA in history.

And my ALL TIME FAVORITE quote is from Abraham Lincoln:

It's smarter to remain quiet and be thought a fool rather than speak out and leave no doubt....Abraham Lincoln

Beth said...

Thanks for the review Gene. I was not really interested in history when I was in school because we just seem to memorize dates and battles. I really love books that are about people in a historical era. You get the history as it relates to the people. Much more interesting than just dates.

Jean(ie) said...

I saw the movie and loved it! I'll have to order this book. Your review intrigued me. I'll even pass it on to hubby. He's the history guru of the family.

Enjoy the warmer weather down there.

BillieBee (billiemick) said...

Great review Gene...thanks!

quiltmom anna said...

I love history and this sounds like a fascinating book. We are currently watching the PBS series The Abolishists and are finding it very interesting. We haven't been to see Lincoln just yet but will go to see it too.
I love all of Jennifer's other books so I am sure I will be reading this when it comes out too.
Thanks for the review and for the link to Auntie pami's blog. Another new to me blog.

Robin (RsIslandCrafts) said...

I enjoy US History and Lincoln has always fascinated me. Sounds like a book I would enjoy. I will have to add it to my reading list. Thanks!