The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

I made a terrible mistake with this book. I was in a YouTube Rabbit Hole when I came across a movie trailer for The Dressmaker. It stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth. The trailer was so funny that I decided to read the book it was based off. Don’t ever make this mistake. I know people argue about whether to read the book before you see the movie. People lie to complain that the movie is nothing like the book. What your opinions are for those two topics doesn’t matter. All you need to know in life is that you never watch a movie trailer and then read the book. Trust me because everything will be 80 times more confusing.

The trailer suggested that this woman comes back to town, causes a stir on purpose, and gets revenge. The viewer also gets this vague feeling that she’s been framed for a murder when she’s a kid. So, when I picked up the book to read I had keywords: murder, revenge, hot guy to be named. None of which really helped, so I’m sort of wondering how closely the movie will be to the book. That’s not what this post is about though.

The book does involve a female, I couldn’t quite peg her age. I don’t know if it was ever explicit said. I think she’s between 26-30, judging from the other timeline hints throughout the book. Although, maybe not. Maybe she was older than that. And this female Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage returns home to take care of her genuinely crazy mother who’s all but been abandoned in her home at the top of the hill in this Podunk not-even-a-single-stoplight town in Australia. One of the first scenes is Tilly cleaning out the absolute filth that her mother’s house has become. It’s tragic but gorgeous. You find out later that she hasn’t seen her mother since the incident. Her first meeting with her mother is cleaning out the rubble, washing her, and then feeding her. Throughout the rest of the book she cares for her mother, nursing her back to health even though her mother tells everyone that Tilly’s trying to poison her. The mom is even crazy enough to whap Tilly on the head with a poker. No, actually the craziest part is when the mother (aptly named Mad Molly) disassembles Tilly Singer so thoroughly that it takes Tilly days to find all of the pieces and put it back together.

Tilly is an incredibly talented seamstress who’s studied fashion around the world. Unlike the movie trailer suggested, she didn’t purposely flaunt this however. She made her own dresses, which were stunning and flattering. They made the other woman in the town feel frumpy. Tilly never gave off the air that she wore her clothes to stick it to them. She wore the style she wore simply because she knew fashion and what looked great on her. The other woman took umbrage simply because they were determined to hate her. The book was less about her taking revenge, or even Tilly at all. Tilly was the shining bit of foil that reflected how awful the townspeople were. In fact, Tilly was in shocking little of the book, although her presence was always felt.

This book was everything I loved about Jane Austen. I don’t understand the culture of women who swoon over Mr. Darcy, would spend all of their money to go to Austenland, or think Jane Austen is the epitome of romance. Don’t get me wrong. There are beautiful moments of romance in Jane Austen. You can’t read the letter scene in Persuasion and not get all fluttery about love conquering the past. Still, 98% of Austen’s characters are terrible people. Everyone’s awful and there’s this fascinating show of social life and existence. The Dressmaker is like that too.

Tilly was blamed for a young boy’s death, although when you actually get the story of what happened, you realize that Tilly was the victim. In fact, all of her classmates harassed and abused her for her whole life because no one knew who her father was. They accused her mom of being a whore and her of being this vile bastard. She was utterly mistreated and then shipped off to a boarding school after that terrible, evil boy died. I digress though, she’s the town villain because of her unknown father and this “murder”—heavy quotes on that. She’s low on the social totem pole and it’s acceptable to torment her in the minds of the townspeople. What’s really tragic is that she spends a lot of the book believing that she deserves it, like this is her penance for being cursed. It’s so sad.

Anyway, Rosalie Ham sprinkles Tilly’s story in with the actual terrible going-ons with the people who live in town. We’re given snippets and stories of these townspeople, all with awful and snide personalities, secrets they don’t want to divulge, and biases they can’t quite keep hidden, as they live through football championships and the emergence of a socialite club. I wanted to throw my ebook at the wall and scream, “You’re terrible people!” And they are because real people are. Rich people look down at working class people. Working class people look down at the poor. Everyone hates those deemed as immoral and looks the other way if the rabble is treated violently. The rabble deserves it. Rosalie Ham was brilliant at painting the picture of a town that destroyed itself. Tilly had a few punches she added to the brawl, but the vanity and meanness of the people were the cause of their own destruction.

I don’t think this is a book of revenge. For me, this book showed a woman with a really sad life tying up the loose ends of her life. She’s haunted by her past. I don’t know if she’ll ever be able to completely put it behind her. She had to face the town head on. She had to come back and see her mother. She had to look the people in the eye. Without that I think she would have aimlessly circled the town with it on her mind. She’d either actively have to ignore and suppress it or let it eat her up inside. Returning allowed her to sort through who needed forgiveness and who didn’t. I also think that she got to witness the shittiness of everyone else and their downward spiraling lives, which put things into perspective. And then, at the very end she was able to leave giving everyone a solid middle finger that they’d all earned. She left with what I hope is a sense of being able to live with herself, sort of an embracing of who and what she was. She became self-aware in a way that the townspeople never would become.

I really enjoyed the book, even though it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Anyone who likes happily ever after won’t enjoy the book. I say that for my sisters. They’d hate this book. There are character deaths that are shocking and cut me to the core. I felt physical pain because of them. There are also strong moments of come uppance. The story drifts along until the most painful character death. Then everything seems to quicken it’s pace down a hill and then absolutely goes to hell in a hand basket in a majestic sort of way. Still, you have to appreciate the idea of a single woman going riding away on a train alone to conquer the world.

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