|The Seamstress of New Orleans / Diane C. McPhail|
New York, NY : John Scognamiglio Books/Kensington Books, 2022.
This is a book I picked up at my library solely for the title and promise of sewing inside! It's a historical novel set in Chicago and New Orleans in 1900 -- not my usual genre but I thought I'd give it a chance.
It's okay. I wasn't really caught up in the story, finding it a bit repetitive and wishing the focus had been shifted a bit. It follows two female leads, Constance and Alice. Both have just lost their husbands, Constance's to death and Alice's to disappearance. Left on her own in Chicago, Alice makes her way down to New Orleans where she's drawn into the preparations for an all-female Mardi Gras krewe, hired as a seamstress to make Constance's gown.
Now if this part had been the primary focus -- Mardi Gras, the unusual presence of an all-female krewe, New Orleans itself, plus of course all the gowns in preparation, I would have been enthralled. Unfortunately, McPhail chooses instead to focus on the women's emotional responses to their missing husbands, which gets bogged down as the story goes. Too much backstory, and the big secret that ties Constance and Alice together is extremely easy to see coming from about chapter two. So the mystery falls flat, and the repeated attempts to create tension around it are not effective since the reader already knows the outcome (it's very clear early on).
I found myself skimming a lot of the backstory bits, until I could get back to the descriptions of the dressmaking. And those parts are great. McPhail is an experienced sewist, which you can tell from the way she writes about design and the practicalities of fabric and stitching. When Alice and Constance are discussing the design of the gown they're making, there is life and spark to the story. I found it really interesting that they are basically upcycling a few gowns given to Constance by a richer friend, since she's now pinching pennies without a husband around. They cut them apart and even remove beading, saving the silk threads, to use all of these materials again in the final outfit. And the gown isn't a magical Cinderella thing, Alice lives with Constance for many weeks in order to work on this project, which also shows familiarity with dressmaking!
So I would say this is partially successful; there was obviously a lot of historical research in this story, which shows, and I wish there was more of that detail included in the story -- she could have used the setting much more intensely. Much of the story is focused on the interior lives of Constance and Alice, and it begins to drag in the middle. It wasn't utterly gripping, but enough to keep me reading all weekend to finish it up and see where she went with it. And the sewing details are perfect ;)