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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 31.
- Review Date: 2008-05-12
- Reviewer: Staff
Unfortunately for Nell Plat, the heroine of Erin McGraw's immersive fifth book (after The Good Life), she is a whiz with a needle, but a failure in the kitchen. While she makes a name for herself sewing dresses in early 20th-century Grant Station, Kans., her lack of kitchen prowess is crippling to her marriage, prompting her to leave her husband and two daughters for Hollywood, where with the help of a French grammar book, she becomes Madame Annelle, modiste to the fine ladies of Pasadena. She marries oilman George Curran, and has another daughter, Mary. Just as she realizes her dream, cutting fabric alongside an established and very esteemed seamstress, her past arrives on her doorstep in the form of her two grown daughters, flappers who call themselves Lisette and Aimée in an attempt at the sophistication they hope will land them in the movies. Nell claims them as her sisters, but the lie only delays the unraveling of her California dream. Inspired by her grandmother's story, McGraw captures the lonely rigor of life on the plains and the invigorating lure of reinvention. (Aug.)
Kansas girl with Hollywood dreams
Erin McGraw has made her mark with short stories peopled by quirky yet thoroughly believable characters caught up in the vagaries of familial relationships. In The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, her second novel, McGraw has taken the skeleton of her own grandmother's story and turned it into a frank and engaging depiction of one young woman's attempt to reinvent herself.
At 17, Nell Plat is immersed on a Kansas farm, married to Jack, a dull, thoughtless mama's boy who is disdainful of Nell's lack of culinary skills and unappreciative of her increasing renown as a seamstress. Nell is completely unprepared for motherhood, and her first child, Lucille, leaves her mired in depression. As Nell sews fashionable dresses for the town's upper crust, she begins to imagine another life"where no baby cried and no wind blew." After the birth of her second daughter, Amelia, Jack becomes scornful of her mothering; when he sells her sewing machine out from under her, Nell is gone. She takes the dollars she has painstakingly socked away, leaves Jack and the girls to his mother's care, and heads to Los Angeles, her vision of paradise.
Nell works as a "shoppie" in a succession of clothing stores, and spends her nights as Madame Annelle, sewing dresses for the fashion-conscious matrons of Pasadena. Eventually she quits her day job and becomes self-employed, pushing thoughts of her daughters into the background.
McGraw's research into Hollywood in the '20s and its burgeoning movie business blends seamlessly with Nell's saga, as she first sews, then designs, costumes for the stars. She marries George, an oil man, and gives birth to Mary, her first truly wanted daughter. But George is resentful of her career, sarcastically referring to her as "the seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard."
The inevitable reckoning with Nell's past arrives unexpectedly when Lucille and Amelia suddenly appear. The ways in which Nell copes with the revelation of her past brings McGraw's enlightening novel full circle, and brings her tribute to her grandmother's gumption to a hopeful, if bittersweet, conclusion.
Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.