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The Dressmaker's Dowry by Meredith Jaeger


Genre: Fiction
Publication Date: 7 February 2017
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss

Synopsis from the Publisher:

An exquisite ring, passed down through generations, connects two women who learn that love is a choice, and forgiveness is the key to freedom…

San Francisco: 1876

Immigrant dressmakers Hannelore Schaeffer and Margaret O’Brien struggle to provide food for their siblings, while mending delicate clothing for the city’s most affluent ladies. When wealthy Lucas Havensworth enters the shop, Hanna’s future is altered forever. With Margaret’s encouragement and the power of a borrowed green dress, Hanna dares to see herself as worthy of him. Then Margaret disappears, and Hanna turns to Lucas. Braving the gritty streets of the Barbary Coast and daring to enter the mansions of Nob Hill, Hanna stumbles upon Margaret’s fate, forcing her to make a devastating decision…one that will echo through the generations.

San Francisco: Present Day

In her elegant Marina apartment overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, Sarah Havensworth struggles to complete the novel she quit her job for. Afraid to tell her husband of her writer’s block, Sarah is also hiding a darker secret—one that has haunted her for 14 years. Then a news headline from 1876 sparks inspiration: Missing Dressmakers Believed to be Murdered. Compelled to discover what happened to Hannelore and Margaret, Sarah returns to her roots as a journalist. Will her beautiful heirloom engagement ring uncover a connection to Hanna Schaeffer?”

My Thoughts: Meredith Jaeger’s debut novel is very much a debut. The descriptions are weak. The plot is rushed. Her characters are lacking in depth and personality. The discovery of the truth behind Meredith’s and Hanna’s disappearances makes for a tragic story but means nothing for Sarah. She has no stake in their story and therefore no real connection between them.

There is also an issue with Sarah’s big secret. Even though she does not reveal it until late into the story, the actual secret is not much of a surprise. There are heavy-handed hints that allow readers to guess at it long before she shares the truth with her husband. The secret itself is tragic but does not warrant her panic attacks and social anxiety – that we only hear about but never witness. Plus, it becomes increasingly odd that her husband, who loves her so much, would not urge her to seek help for her issues. However odd this all is, one can explain it. However, when she does reveal her secret to her husband, her reaction is so dramatic that it becomes eyeroll-worthy and laughter-inducing. The whole situation exists to create drama but ends up be farcical.

In fact, all of Sarah’s story is eyeroll-inducing. Not only is she happily married to someone who absolutely adores her, she married into one of the wealthiest families in San Francisco. She had a great job as editor-in-chief at a local newspaper but that was not enough for her, so she was able to quit her job to get her masters’ degree. When we meet her, she is doing exactly what she wants with no financial worries. Readers will find it very difficult to relate to her and her charmed life. She mentions being raised in Wisconsin, but the few memories she shares are not enough to bridge the gap between privilege and real life. Even the so-called threats she receives are superficial with no real danger or urgency. Frankly, Sarah’s life is rather boring.

Hanna’s story is definitely more interesting, with its glimpses into early San Francisco and its hardships for immigrants. Ms. Jaeger does a great job explaining how Hanna’s San Francisco sits underneath Sarah’s, how old neighborhoods morphed into the current ones. She does not mince words when it comes to the filth and lack of sanitation in the streets and houses. She even captures the desperation that drove people to unspeakable crimes. In spite of all of this, the reader remains at a distant from it. One is never transported to Hanna’s world. Instead, we view it remotely from the safety of our modern world.

The best way to view The Dressmaker’s Dowry is as a fairy tale except without the morality tale. This helps explain the lack of character development and the weak attention to setting. It also helps to explain the missing urgency in the plot, as the ending is a foregone conclusion. Revealed secrets and confronted enemies allow everyone to obtain their happily ever after. While a perfectly acceptable literary style, it is a disappointing choice for this story. It is obvious Ms. Jaeger has done her research and knows her city. I just wish the characters and the story were less superficial, that there was more gravitas to the entire novel.

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