Monday, July 21, 2014

The Forgotten Seamstress

Title:  The Forgotten Seamstress
Author:  Liz Trenow
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks Landmark. 2014. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1402282486 / 978-1402282485

Book Source:  I won the book through the GoodReads First Reads program. That copy never arrived, but I read the book anyways.

Favorite Quote:  "Your history is what makes you who you are, doesn't it?"

It's 1970. A student interviews an elderly resident at an insane asylum for her research. The resident Maria weaves a fantastical tale of being raised in an orphanage, put into service at Buckingham Palace, developing a relationship with the Prince of Wales, and being committed to an insane asylum. Are these the delusional rants of an insane person or the truth?

It's 1911. Two young girls Nora and Maria live at an orphanage. Neither has a family; each is family and friend to the other. They excel as seamstresses, particularly Maria. They are chosen to join a "grand" household. They live in the downstairs and work under the head seamstresses. Years pass, and "situations" arise. As a result, Maria in brought to what she thinks is a hospital for care. She ends up committed to an insane asylum for the bulk of her life.

It's 2008. Caroline Meadows is coping with a broken relationship, a loss of a job, a dream of a career, and a widowed mother who needs more and more care. In helping her mother clear the attic, she discovers a beautiful quilt in her grandmother's thing. The quilt contains a lovely inscription: "I stitched my love into this quilt, sewn it neatly proud and true. Though you have gone, I must live on and this will hold me close to you."

Intrigued, Caroline starts research her grandmother's history to discover the provenance for the quilt. This leads her to the insane asylum and to Maria's story and to a history of her own family.

Weaved into this book is a brief history of the May silks. In 1893, Princess Mary of Teck wore a dress at her wedding to Prince George (King George V). The dress and those of the bridesmaids were made of fabric specifically designed for the occasion by a British designer named Arthur Silver. The fabric was embroidered with a motif of rose, shamrock and thistle trimmed with orange blossom and lovers knots. Although the time period of Maria's life is about 20 years later, the fabrics still play a role in her life and her legacy.

The book chapters go back and forth through Maria's interview and through Caroline's story. Through the interviews, we learn of what happened when Maria and Nora joined the royal household and how that journey led to Maria being committed to an insane asylum.

What I enjoyed about the book is that both Maria and Caroline are developed as characters, and both stories are developed. The movement between the two is fluid and maintains the continuity of the book.

Caroline's story is not an unusual one. She is a young woman at a crossroads in life. How does she dealing with an aging and ill parent? Does she continue in a job path that provides financial stability but does not fulfill her dreams? Does she dwell on a relationship ended or does she leave herself open to more? Does she take the safe path or does she reach out and take the risk? An interesting story but it does not stand out on its own.

I particularly enjoy Maria's story and Maria as a character. The use of an interview to tell the story in her own words works really well. That perspective captures her emotions and excitement and desperation as a young girl in circumstances beyond her control. The fact that the interview is conducted over fifty years later enables the story to include the hindsight and reflection that comes with age and the passage of time. "It's hardly surprising that I almost forgot who I'd once been. They stole the real Maria away from me." Maria's character and the way her story is told move this book beyond others like it and make it memorable.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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