“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” by Jennifer Chiaverini

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” by Jennifer ChiaveriniMrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
Published: 2013 by Plume
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: ARC
Source: the publisher
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Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini is the story of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who becomes a famed modiste in Washington, DC.  While sewing dresses for Mrs. Lincoln, the two women develop an unlikely friendship.

Elizabeth’s life story is fascinating.  Her talent as a seamstress allowed her to buy her freedom, and she became a thriving businesswoman.  During the Civil War, she founded the Contraband Relief Association to raise money for the freed and runaway African Americans who were pouring into Washington.  She wrote a controversial book about her time with the Lincoln family, and eventually became a university professor.  She was truly an astonishing woman.

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker highlights the contradictions between people’s daily lives and their politics.  Although she is an active member of the abolitionist community, Elizabeth also made dresses for Varina Davis (Jefferson Davis’ wife) and considered her a good friend.  She also maintained ties with her former owners, who weren’t portrayed as malicious so much as misguided.  Meanwhile, many of Lincoln’s cabinet members were portrayed as conniving and horrible people.  These contradictions provide food for thought and show how the Civil War strained personal relationships as people who were once friends find themselves fighting on opposite sides of a war.

One of the central ideas expressed in the book is a vindication of Mrs. Lincoln and her actions.  Elizabeth understood that despite Mrs. Lincoln’s character flaws, she had good intentions and just never seemed to get anything quite right.  This is an interesting perspective, as even now, most media attention given to Mrs. Lincoln focuses on the volatility of her personality.

Despite wanting to love this novel, my overall reaction to the book was ultimately one of disappointment.  Elizabeth’s character was flat and so confined to her historical role that she didn’t come alive on the pages.  She seemed more like a lens to view Mrs. Lincoln than an actual person.  This had a major impact on my enjoyment of the story, which felt more like a biography than a novel.  At the same time, I am grateful to Jennifer Chiaverini for introducing me to Elizabeth Keckley’s incredible life story.

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