Elizabeth Keckley became the dressmaker and friend of Mary Todd Lincoln. Born a slave, Elizabeth saved to buy the freedom of herself and her son. To support herself, she became a modiste for the rich ladies of Washington, D.C. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency offered Elizabeth a new client, the new first lady. Despite their differences, a close friendship developed between the two women as the Civil War raged around them. Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker offers a historical fiction view of this remarkable woman.
This book read more like a history for 5th graders than a historical novel. I am a huge advocate of historical fiction staying true to the truth; yet, the purpose of writing fiction versus a history is to use creative license to give the characters more depth than can be done in a completely non-fiction book. Fiction also allows the author to choose a theme and create a plot from the events of real life. Ms. Chiaverini fails to embrace the freedom allowed by writing fiction and created a book that, at best, can be described as boring.
The book opens with Elizabeth already working in Washington D.C. as a successful dressmaker. The dramatic, pivotal moments of her earlier life as a slave get presented to the reader as dry facts with barely an emotional reaction from the main character. There are no flashbacks, no details. Elizabeth simply thinks about the facts of her life as if telling the reader she had bought a new ribbon. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth’s emotional reactions remain fairly flat. She has moments of sadness and fear before returning to her normal neutral approach to life. In fact, Elizabeth never appears to develop a personality. The first few chapters tease the reader with a character that appears well drawn but shortly afterwards, Ms. Chiaverini loses a unique Elizabeth voice and the book becomes drier in tone.
Ms. Chiaverini describes Civil War battles and the White House politics simply, without offering any depth or insights. In fact, they often get simplified to the point where it feels like the book was written for children rather than adults. I attempt to rationalize this by reminding myself that the point of view character probably had little understanding of either war or politics. However, Elizabeth’s narrative voice is so faint, that it becomes hard to remember the book comes from her point of view rather than being a history book. Part of that stems from the book’s lack of focus. Ms. Chiaverini tries to include details of the Civil War, the politics in the White House, Mrs. Lincoln’s personal struggles, Elizabeth’s work in the black community, her relationships with the Lincolns, and her dressmaking business as main plot lines. With a book 350 pages long, these plot lines never get fully developed. The last section of the book focuses more on the relationship between Elizabeth and Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln’s debts. However, the narrower focus towards the end does not help give the reader a sense of dramatic tension as much as it feels like the book wandered into a dead end it could not escape.
Lastly, Ms. Chiaverini slips back and forth from writing with a modern tone to writing with a more classic tone. The slips into modern expressions felt jarring and anachronistic. The overall effect felt like reading a college paper where the student barely paraphrases certain sources than returns to writing in their own voice. I found these shifts to be disconcerting, pulling me out of the narrative entirely.
Ms. Chiaverini did well maintaining historical accuracy. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this book to anyone. There are better written histories and novels covering this time period.
Also by Jennifer Chiaverini: The Wedding Quilt
Sara Drake has been an avid reader since a young age. She has both a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling and a Master’s in History.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Dutton Adult. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.