Book Review for “The Seamstress of New Orleans” by Diane C. McPhail.
Summary: “The year 1900 ushers in a new century and the promise of social change, and women rise together toward equality. Yet rules and restrictions remain, especially for women like Alice Butterworth, whose husband has abruptly disappeared. Desperate to make a living for herself and the child she carries, Alice leaves the bitter cold of Chicago far behind, offering sewing lessons at a New Orleans orphanage. Constance Halstead, a young widow reeling with shock under the threat of her late husband’s gambling debts, has thrown herself into charitable work. Meeting Alice at the orphanage, she offers lodging in exchange for Alice’s help creating a gown for the Leap Year ball of Les Mysterieuses, the first all female krewe of Mardi Gras. During Leap Years, women have the rare opportunity to take control in their interactions with men, and upend social convention. Piece by piece, the breathtaking gown takes shape, becoming a symbol of strength for both women, reflecting their progress toward greater independence.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, USA – Louisiana; New Orleans; Other Categories: Novel, Coming-of-Age, Feminism, Mystery.
I don’t seem to read much historical fiction that is set in the South (meaning in the southern states of the US) which doesn’t have to do with the Civil War or slavery. So, a book that takes place in New Orleans in 1900 was for me, a real draw. That it is also women’s fiction that has no romance at all, was even more appealing. That I also got to learn a few things about the state of Louisiana and their allowing women to inherit and own property, which also gave them the right to vote in certain elections, was an added bonus. Now, I’ve never been to that part of the country, although I’ve seen films of Mardi Gras, and it looks very rowdy, noisy, and drunken, but also a whole lot of fun; I wouldn’t mind experiencing it first hand, and maybe I will – some day! Finally, I really enjoy books about people who are creative in the any of the arts, especially the visual ones, probably because I have no talent in that area, but appreciate beauty. So, that’s why I asked for the ARC of this novel. Now… what did I think of it?
From the onset of this novel, it seemed clear to me that Constance’s husband, Benton Halstead, is the same person as Alice’s husband, Howard Butterworth. That both these women married the same man, but lived in separate cities, and accidentally connect when Alice leaves Chicago and moves to New Orleans, is plausible enough, if slightly convenient. Bigamy, while generally rare, isn’t unusual. McPhail has these two women describe their husbands’ personalities and actions so as they’re practically twins. This, however, also caused a touch of an editing problem. You see, there were a couple places where Constance referred to her husband by the name of Howard, and not Benton – and that bothered me (but it can be fixed). There were also a few other plot holes here and there (such as some problems I had with wedding photos, and/or lack thereof), but I’m afraid if I talk any more about them, they’ll lead to spoilers (and you know I’d never do that)!
Despite these niggles, the focus of this book is on Alice and Constance, and how they came together and grew to be not just employer and employee, but friends, and later, practically family. I truly enjoyed watching their relationship blossom and grow, and in particular, how they designed the gown for Constance for Mardi Gras. This was the most intricate and descriptive part of this book, and I had many images of what it looked like from McPhail’s account of how the design evolved. By the way, contrary to the (very lovely) dress on this book’s cover, for some reason I imagined a deep hued dress, but I could be wrong.
We also get a good feeling for some of the other characters here. For example, Annalee, who is Constance’s maid/housekeeper/nanny comes off as very well formed and likeable. I liked how McPhail suggested that Annalee was black, rather than saying so (except for one time where Annalee tells us that someone called her the N word). As for Benton/Howard, I got the distinct impression that besides his obsessive penchant for gambling, he might also have been a closeted homosexual. Again, I could be wrong, but it does explain a few things that McPhail shows us here.
With all of this, plus several very interesting twists that occur in the later part of this book, it could have been a touch too complex. That said, I also got the feeling that McPhail had much more she could have told us about these women, as well as what New Orleans was like in 1900. In fact, I’m sure McPhail had enough material for a much longer tome, if not two full, normal length novels. The drawback of this is that some of the parts felt a bit rushed – as if McPhail didn’t have enough time to tell us the whole story. Even so, overall, I did enjoy this book and I can very warmly recommend it to lovers of historical fiction who want to read about women empowering themselves and becoming independent. That leaves me to rate this novel with a solid 4 out of five stars.
John Scognamiglio of Kensington Publishing Corp. released “The Seamstress of New Orleans” by Diane C. McPhail on May 31, 2022. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Foyles, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (both with free worldwide delivery), Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for the ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.