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THE SEAMSTRESS by Frances de Pontes Peebles

THE SEAMSTRESS

By Frances de Pontes Peebles

Pub Date: Aug. 5th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-06-073887-7
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Two sisters work both banks of the river and both sides of the law, united in their knowledge of stitchery, in this ponderous semi-epic, set in the steamy Brazilian jungle in the 1920s and ’30s.

This debut novel from Peebles, a native of Brazil, concerns Emília and Luzia dos Santos, virtuous sisters living in poverty on one of the vast, near-feudal estates of the swampy interior. Emília is sentimental and gushy, given to praying to Saint Anthony to one day send her a prince—and soon, for as the book opens she is “nineteen and already an old maid.” Sister Luzia, meanwhile, has taken a nasty spill from a tall tree and been awarded cruel nicknames by the other kids for her troubles. Well, nothing will set a future revolutionary off like getting dissed by the local yokels, and so it goes: Luzia hooks up with the local peasant bandits-cum-revolutionaries, led by one Hawk, who “had become a cangaceiro when he killed the famous Colonel Bartolomeu of Serra Negra in his own study, bypassing the colonel’s capangas and gutting him with his own letter opener.” Bad way to go, that. Luzia, for her part, becomes a sure hand with most forms of contemporary weaponry, slaying one running dog of reaction after another (“The first cut’s always the hardest. After that, it gets easier”) while keeping her pinking shears within reach. And Emília—well, she’s gone off and married the son of a big landowner, since to do otherwise would have thrown the whole twin-track story off balance. Neither sister feels complete without the other, and neither has the true love she deserves—or does she? Emília’s a peach, but unappreciated; for all her deformities, Luzia has a certain Sonia Braga quality to her, but the Hawk is just plain paranoid, the hubby a drip and the jungle just too murky, which means only one thing: Darling, we love you, but give us Park Avenue or a pine box. Peebles’s novel is one of two about seamstresses being published in August (see the review of The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard by Erin McGraw, also in this issue).

Slow-moving, long and meandering, like an Amazonian stream—with moments of beauty, but in need of a machete.