Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker
Genre: Historical Fiction
Summary (from Goodreads): In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, novelist Jennifer Chiaverini presents a stunning account of the friendship that blossomed between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley, a former slave who gained her professional reputation in Washington, D.C. by outfitting the city’s elite. Keckley made history by sewing for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln within the White House, a trusted witness to many private moments between the President and his wife, two of the most compelling figures in American history.
In March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln chose Keckley from among a number of applicants to be her personal “modiste,” responsible not only for creating the First Lady’s gowns, but also for dressing Mrs. Lincoln in the beautiful attire Keckley had fashioned. The relationship between the two women quickly evolved, as Keckley was drawn into the intimate life of the Lincoln family, supporting Mary Todd Lincoln in the loss of first her son, and then her husband to the assassination that stunned the nation and the world.
Keckley saved scraps from the dozens of gowns she made for Mrs. Lincoln, eventually piecing together a tribute known as the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt. She also saved memories, which she fashioned into a book, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Upon its publication, Keckley’s memoir created a scandal that compelled Mary Todd Lincoln to sever all ties with her, but in the decades since, Keckley’s story has languished in the archives. In this impeccably researched, engrossing novel, Chiaverini brings history to life in rich, moving style.
Review: This sounded like a fascinating historical fiction novel from an author whose works I have read and enjoyed before. However, I was disappointed to discover that it read more like a nonfiction book, and that the primary focus of the novel seemed to be Mrs. Lincoln, rather than Elizabeth herself. According to the author's note, Chiaverini based her work primarily on Elizabeth Keckley's memoirs, and it seems as if she tried not to take liberties with the characters' emotions or dialogues. But I wish she had! It would have given the characters more dimension, made them more believable as real people, and made the book much more enjoyable to read. Having said that, it was quite interesting to read about life during the Civil War and in the Lincoln White House, I just wish it hadn't felt so much like reading a textbook.
Rating: 2.5 stars