Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster (pub date 3/27/12)
We’re only weeks away from the centennial of the Titanic disaster, and publishers are quickly coming out with new titles on the subject while they still can. And while there are numerous fiction and nonfiction books on the market telling the same story over and over again, here is a book that tries to do it a little differently. Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage focuses on the perspective of the passengers rather than the ship. The book gives extremely detailed accounts of the lives of Titanic’s most famous passengers. It looks at them as real people, rather than just a group of individuals aboard the same ship.
Through painstaking research and a lively writing style, Hugh Brewster recalls the life stories of John Jacob Astor, Margaret Brown, Lucile Duff Gordon, Frank Millet, and many others. The book gives their personal histories, their romances, their triumphs, and their scandalous secrets. Rare photographs and hundreds of quotations help breathe life into these biographies.
While other Titanic books focus mostly on the ship, with the passengers as an accessory to its story, in this book the passengers are the story. The book really gives readers insight and perspective regarding society and culture in the early twentieth century. If you’re looking for a factually accurate yet well-written account of the Titanic disaster, definitely check this book out. It’s a chilling reminder of just how compelling the tragedy is, even after a hundred years.
The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott (pub date 2/21/12)
The one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is an occasion for remembrance and also for marketing gimmicks. James Cameron will be re-releasing his immensely famous film this year (supposedly in 3D), and there will be tons of books, both fiction and nonfiction, published on the subject. As someone fascinated by the Titanic and by the time period, I was really excited to read The Dressmaker.
The story centers around Tess Collins, a poor servant and aspiring dressmaker, who runs away from the house she is serving in and attempts to board the Titanic at Cherbourg. As fate would have it, she meets renowned fashion designer Lucile Duff Gordon and convinces her to take Tess with her to New York as a maid. Tess and Lucile both survive the sinking, and the ever-fortunate Tess is given a position in Lucille’s design studio. But as rumors spread about Lucile’s ignoble actions during Titanic’s sinking and an investigation ensues, Tess becomes unsure of who or what to believe about the scandal.
I wanted to like this book, and I can see that it tried, but about a third of the way in I could tell that the story lacked substance and was slowly going nowhere. The characters were flat and the writing and dialogue pretty dull. Despite being based on historical events, the book failed to breathe any life into the time period. Alcott is ambitious but amateurish, relying on nearly nonexistent conflict and a love triangle (sigh) to keep the story moving forward. I found myself skimming the pages by the time I got to the end.
To give credit where it’s due, however, I will say that Alcott did her homework when it comes to the sinking of the Titanic. There really was a Lucile Duff Gordon who was a popular fashion designer, and she and her husband were investigated for their alleged actions during their rescue. And several of the other well known Titanic passengers, including Bruce Ismay and “the unsinkable” Molly Brown also make appearances in the novel. Unfortunately these people, while fascinating in real life, came across as lifeless and stilted in the book.
All in all, The Dressmaker isn’t terrible, but it’s unoriginal fluff with boring stock characters and a pretty lame ending. If you want to get your Titanic fix, I suggest finding another book or just watching the movie. . .even if it means having to hear that Celine Dion song again.