Review: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

Description (from publisher):

New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini illuminates the extraordinary friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a former slave who won her freedom by the skill of her needle, and the friendship of the First Lady by her devotion.

In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, novelist Jennifer Chiaverini presents a stunning account of the friendship that blossomed between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Keckley, a former slave who gained her professional reputation in Washington, D.C. by outfitting the city’s elite. Keckley made history by sewing for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln within the White House, a trusted witness to many private moments between the President and his wife, two of the most compelling figures in American history.

In March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln chose Keckley from among a number of applicants to be her personal ‘modiste,’ responsible not only for creating the First Lady’s gowns, but also for dressing Mrs. Lincoln in the beautiful attire Keckley had fashioned. The relationship between the two women quickly evolved, as Keckley was drawn into the intimate life of the Lincoln family, supporting Mary Todd Lincoln in the loss of first her son, and then her husband to the assassination that stunned the nation and the world.

Keckley saved scraps from the dozens of gowns she made for Mrs. Lincoln, eventually piecing together a tribute known as the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt. She also saved memories, which she fashioned into a book, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Upon its publication, Keckley’s memoir created a scandal that compelled Mary Todd Lincoln to sever all ties with her, but in the decades since, Keckley’s story has languished in the archives. In this impeccably researched, engrossing novel, Chiaverini brings history to life in rich, moving style.’

My thoughts:

I read a lot of reviews of this book before I actually got around to reading it. The reviews were mixed: some loved this book and some really didn’t care for it. I am not one to really let other people’s reviews influence my thoughts about a book. I prefer to read it for myself and see how I take to it. So positive and negative reviews aside, I liked the book at times and then I didn’t at times. It was an okay read for me. I felt sometimes that the story dragged along and that it could have been a lot shorter of a book. There was one point where I was like can we get to Lincoln’s assassination in order to spruce the story up a little bit. It has some good factors and some bad ones as well.

What I liked about this book was that it was about someone I didn’t really know a lot about. I didn’t even know Elizabeth Keckley existed, and I knew very little about Mary Todd Lincoln and President Lincoln other than he was assassinated. So all this material was new to me which I liked. I liked Elizabeth’s character and I liked learning about historical events from her point of view. What I didn’t like was Mary Todd Lincoln. She was really annoying. I don’t know if it was the author’s intention to portray her in this way because this is the way she really was or to use it for her story. Whichever it was, she annoyed the crap out of me. She is terribly selfish and naive and whiny and makes the dumbest decisions ever. If I was Elizabeth I think I would have smacked her a few times. If Mary Lincoln was really like the character in this book, God help the people who knew her. Goodness.

So while this book wasn’t the greatest, it also wasn’t the worst I’ve read. The writing was good, a little long in some places and a little slow, but enough to keep me interested. Like I said, Elizabeth is a very good character and it was easy to like her. I wish that the author would have focused more on the assassination of President Lincoln as that was skimmed over and I think that was simply the most interesting part of this book. This book is a toss up, you either like it or don’t. I don’t think I want to learn more about Mary Todd Lincoln after reading this one though. Personally, I could have skipped it and been fine.

Overall Rating: 3

Title:  Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker
Author:  Jennifer Chiaverini
Series:  N/A
Publisher:  Dutton Adult
Publication Date:  January 15, 2013
Pages: 352
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Get It:  Amazon; Barnes & Noble

Disclaimer: This book was given to me by the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for my honest review. I reviewed this book without compensation of any kind. All thoughts and opinions are solely mine.

11 thoughts on “Review: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

  1. I don't know anything about Mary Todd Lincoln to know if she was a selfish, whiny curmudgeon, but that might get on my nerves, too. Characters like that have to be written a certain way so that it doesn't become unbearable.


  2. I still haven't read this book but it's interesting to me how mixed the reviews have been. I've seen really good reviews and really bad reviews, which sort of makes me want to read this book even more to see what the deal is.


  3. Nice review — I appreciate your honest thoughts. While I was initially interested in this book, having read one of the author's previous quilt novels and haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaating the heroine, and now the uneven reviews, I think I'm going to pass.


  4. I agree with your assessment of Mrs. Lincoln, Kimberlee. I didn't like her either and she was one of the big reasons I didn't like the book…well, that and the fact I felt like I was reading a textbook. Nice review.


  5. I enjoyed Chiaverini's Quilt novels and I've read Ann Rinaldi's Young Adult fictionalized biography of Elizabeth Keckly and Mary Todd Lincoln. I'm a 19th c historian and have long admired Elizabeth Keckly. Mary Todd Lincoln was difficult. She was emotionally unstable and every time she felt bad her father bought her something. From what I've read, she considered Mrs. Keckly a surrogate Mammy. She's often portrayed as a stereotypical “southern belle.” What I didn't like in the movie Lincoln is that Mrs. Keckly was reduced to a nearly silent ladies' maid. I intend to read this book in the future and I'll let you know whether the portrayal of Mary matches what I've read about her. There's a huge biography that came out fairly recently. I haven't tackled it yet.


  6. Thoughts are up on my blog. I didn't think Mary Lincoln was that annoying. She comes off far better than she does in Ann Rinaldi's YA novel. She was definitely emotionally unstable and unable to cope with what life threw at her. In real life she was educated and intelligent. She wanted to be the president's wife – she just didn't think she'd end up as the wife of the most hated and most loved man in America during a time of turmoil. I honestly feel bad for her because she had so many tragedies in her life. I haven't yet read the giant biography of her that came out several years ago but now I'm a bit more intrigued to learn more.


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