BOOK REVIEW: Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
Genre: Historical Fiction
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker chronicles the friendship that sprung up between Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley–a free black woman–during the Lincolns stay in the White House. A skilled seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley built a business for herself, fashioning gowns for the elite ladies of Washington D. C. Mary Todd Lincoln was among her clients, and during the time the Lincolns spent in the White House, Keckley became a well-known, if not integral, part of White House society. In later years, she compiled a quilt with scraps from the dresses she made for Mary Todd Lincoln, naming it the Mary Todd Lincoln quilt, and also compiled a memoir entitled 30 years a slave, 4 years in the White House. Though the friendship between Mrs. Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley fell out over some scandal after Keckley’s memoir was published, the memoir remains as proof of a unique friendship in history.
Once again, Chiaverini has taken a piece of actual history and fashioned it around a novel. While she is unparalleled in her research and writing stle, I do not think Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker was her best work. I’ve loved a lot of her other books, but this one just didn’t do it for me. Ordinarily, I really enjoy the historical fiction books that are crafted around actual people and events. I still think they take a great deal more finesse than just about any other book. This one just felt too slow. I never got a real sense of what the plot actually was and it just felt like pages, upon pages, of descriptions and events going nowhere. Lots of historical facts–not a whole lot of interesting plot. It was painfully slow. Things just kept happening for no apparent reason. I know, I know, it’s real history–every moment isn’t necessarily a roller coaster. But, to be considered good fiction, it has to have some elements of a plot. Feeling something for the main character would be a start. I never felt attached to Elizabeth Keckley. Her son dies fairly early on in the book, which could have been a big deal, except that it was so far removed from the story itself that it felt more like a footnote. Didn’t know him, didn’t really understand the dynamics of the relationship between him and his mother, and didn’t particularly care when he died. Plus, it was all but forgotten a chapter after it happened, except for a few other random mentions. The same goes for the death of Keckley’s husband. Granted, he wasn’t even living with her at the time, and apparently he was a bit of a scumbag, but all that goes to prove is that his death did nothing for the story. It was just a random fact. Honestly, I feel like this book would have been better if it had just been a biography of Elizabeth Keckley, and written like a biography. If I hadn’t been expecting a novel, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more.
If you want to read a really great historical fiction book about somebody real in history, try Chiaverini’s The Spymistress before you read this one. At least then you’ll know how good history-based historical fiction can be.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. I would give it just 2 stars, but the history was exceptionally well-researched, so that at least has to count for something, I guess.