It’s Titanic revisited, in a romance focused on the survivors and the scandal, seen from the perspective of an aspiring seamstress whose fortunes intertwine with real characters from the epic tragedy.
Published to coincide with the centenary of the famous shipping disaster, Alcott’s debut wraps a conventional tale of love and wish fulfillment around the much more interesting historical facts. Out of some 2,223 people on board the Titanic, only 706 survived, 60 percent from first class, mainly women, and 25 percent from steerage. The behavior of the privileged, in particular Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and his couturier wife Lady Lucy, raised many questions including rumors of bribery and murder. In Alcott’s version, just before the ship leaves Europe, Lady Lucy hires a maid, Tess Collins, whose real passion is designing and sewing clothes. Lucy turns into a selfish, capricious mistress, but Tess endures in hopes of dressmaking work. On board, Tess catches the eye of a wealthy businessman as well as a rock-solid sailor. Then the iceberg intervenes. All these characters survive, but the aftermath in New York is scarcely celebratory, with newspapers gossiping and a Senate inquiry delving into the horrific events. Tess’ loyalty and affections will undergo many additional stress tests.
While the fictionalizing of real characters, notably Lucy, doesn’t wholly convince, there’s an appealing, soulful freshness to this shrewdly commercial offering.