I picked up The Dressmaker by Elizabeth Birkelund Oberbeck hoping for lighthearted story with a happy ending, but ended up drowning in a cautionary tale of the true cost of creative genius. Or something like that anyway. I will not tease you into reading this novel by saying that it had a happy ending because when it comes down to it, there is very little happiness to be had in the whole of the book. The characters that populate its pages are living dream lives they cannot appreciate. Deep in their hearts they know they want something else, but they are at a loss to understand just what that something else is.
Middle-aged tailor Claude Reynaud is a man wholly unable to derive any pleasure from his successes. Women who move in the most influential circles flock to his Reynaud for the privilege of serving as his living canvases at upper crust soirées, weddings, and other grand events. While he revels in the creative process itself, losing himself in the colors and fabrics and lines that are the raw materials of his art, he seems to find no joy in seeing his creations come to life on the bodies of the society women who sing his praises. His life is predictable but pleasant, and he revels in the routine that has him sewing buttons in his small hometown of Senlis.
The testament to both Reynaud’s brilliance and his impotence is the wedding dress he designs for the sudden object of his desire, Valentine de Verlay. Though it seems the dress is perfect in all respects – it gilds its wearer and earns its creator a high profile position at one of Paris’ most respected fashion houses – it cannot win Reynaud her love. Desperate to attract the attention of his tragic sweetheart, he does all of the things it seems that he long ago swore to himself he’d never do. While he rebels against these sweeping life changes in small ways, he cannot escape the feeling that he has betrayed his values.
So, what did I think of the book? I can’t say I cared for most of the dialog, but I tend to be extremely picky about that sort of thing. The story was engaging, but I was disappointed by the ending. I felt like The Dressmaker petered out without giving me the satisfaction of seeing the main character change. Reynaud certainly learned something about himself during his trials of the heart, but he didn’t undergo any significant inner changes. I came away from the book with an impression of Reynaud as the perfect doormat – forever cognizant of his weaknesses, but utterly unwilling to fully explore his strengths.