By: Erin McGraw
Reviewed by: Jody Kamins Harper
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
When Nell Platt first meets the domineering woman who will employ her to sew costumes for Hollywood actors, she sells herself with these words: “I know that details are important. Details create illusions. I never forget that people are trying to escape their own lives.” This revelatory statement is also a metaphor for a novelist’s ambitions, creating detail within the seam of a story that gives readers a well-wrought tale to escape into.
Erin McGraw’s novel, The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, has a precise stitching of language and a sturdy plotting pressing on like a needle through daunting fabric. Threaded through with wit, ambition, and emotion, Nell’s bold act of creating a life of her own is based on McGraw’s paternal grandmother.
From the sod house in Kansas where she was raised, Nell is placed into marriage at fifteen and beset with an agonizingly difficult first child. Soon after she births a second daughter, Nell flees to California. With an industrious vigor, she works herself into the glorious, decadent movie era of the 1920’s, a shop girl by day, seamstress by night.
Fabrication sustains Nell, both in the act of making dresses and also the act of designing a new identity for herself as “Madame Anelle,” her exotic French façade, made from a sprinkling of foreign words and a conjured accent. Her deceptions lead to a harsh denoument.
Her eventual second marriage and the blessings it brings are undone like a beautiful garment turned inside out. The reality of her past life, the scar of under-stitching she never meant for anyone to see, is revealed.
Her eldest girl appears, “her expression . . .confident, like a client with a wallet full of money.” The author presents a wrenching situation of love and regret, betrayal and loss that inevitably ties mother to daughter.
McGraw tells her story with an unsparing eye, embedding the momentary image into the larger narrative. For instance, at a crucial moment, Nell likens her unnerved mind to “a jackrabbit bolting over a crust of snow.”
McGraw shows her protagonist’s love of her work in the array of clothes and costumes she makes, the care and delight she takes in their creation. Throughout the novel, the author prevails, her skilled thread of words sewn into a story as fulfilling as the seamstress’ work itself. And as with any work that is truly satisfying, that is a gracious ending. March 2009
Jody Kamins Harper is a freelance writer living in Dothan.