Disclaimer: The Seamstress, by Allison Pittman, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
My rating: 4/5
The Seamstress was inspired by the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, where a seamstress meets up with That Guy (to avoid spoilers) and talks to him briefly before they are both beheaded. The Seamstress is basically the story of that seamstress, detailing her life and circumstances leading up to and during the French Revolution.
Pittman says she spoils about 50% of A Tale of Two Cities, but I didn’t see it. Of course, I read Dickens’ novel in high school, so my memory of the book is not great. The Seamstress is much more like a historical fiction set during the French Revolution than a spin-off of A Tale of Two Cities, and, in fact, the ending of the novel, where Pittman most clearly references TTC, is the weakest, as Pittman clearly borrowed dialogue from Dickens’ novel, where it stands out like a sore thumb because Pittman doesn’t write like Dickens.
To be honest, I thought the story about the seamstress, Renee, was the weakest of the novel. The story involving Renee’s cousin, Laurette, was the best part. That was a story laden with forgiveness and grace, of a young woman’s desperate attempts to find love and the way she feels when those attempts give her nothing but emptiness and shame. I normally don’t like perfect men, but Gagnon is exactly the character he needed to be to temper Laurette’s wildness. Laurette’s story is the reason I gave this book such a high rating—and Renee’s story is the reason why it didn’t get higher.
Pittman utilizes the dreaded “first-person, third-person” switch: Renee’s story is in 1st person, and Laurette’s in 3rd. I see no reason why it had to be that way, and it’s jarring and frustrating to keep switching back and forth. And compared to Laurette’s beautiful story, Renee’s is timid and historically thin (Pittman admits she painted an idealistic portrait of Marie Antoinette); Renee herself is given paper-thin motivations for her actions and most of the time is simply a passive observer to what’s happening around her. And the reason Pittman gives for her arrest leading up to her death sentence is laughably unrealistic—plot convenience shines throughout that particular portion.
Yet, the power of the setting and Laurette’s story manage to offset and overshadow many of the flaws of Renee’s story, giving a lush, detailed look at the French countryside and the path leading to the French Revolution. The stark contrast between Renee’s life at court and Laurette’s life in the country helps paint the strong divide between rich and poor that was the catalyst in the Revolution’s start. And Renee’s arrest, imprisonment, and execution helps show the bloodthirsty rage that fueled the Revolution and kept the guillotine dropping.
It’s definitely not perfect, but Laurette’s story alone makes The Seamstress worth a read.
Disclaimer: On Shifting Sand, by Allison Pittman, is a review copy provided by Tyndale. Therefore, the format of this review will deviate from my normal blog review format.
Long before anyone would christen the Dust Bowl, Nola Merrill senses the destruction. She’s been drying up bit by bit since the day her mother died, leaving her with a father who withholds his affection the way God keeps a grip on the Oklahoma rain. A hasty marriage to Russ, a young preacher, didn’t bring the escape she desired. Now, twelve years later with two children to raise, new seeds of dissatisfaction take root.
When Jim, a long-lost friend from her husband’s past, takes refuge in their home, Nola slowly springs to life under his attentions until their reckless encounters bring her to commit the ultimate betrayal of her marriage. For months Nola withers in the wake of the shame she so desperately tries to bury, burning to confess her sin but wondering whether Russ’s love will be strong enough to stand the test.
On Shifting Sand is an intriguing look at the effect a buried secret has on a person and on a marriage. Allison Pittman does a great job of balancing the sympathy that the reader feels for Nola as a first-person narrator with the insights that lead us to understand that Nola is an unreliable narrator. In other words, we feel sympathetic for Nola, but not so much that we fail to see her own mistakes and her own self-delusions.
I thought it was a pity that the summary of the book pretty much tells you exactly what happens, but I suppose that can’t really be helped. Just be warned that what takes the summary 150 words to describe takes almost three times that in the book, with very little deviation or expansion. The book is pretty thick, and at parts it drags a little, but Pittman does a good job of disguising her filler so that even the parts that were more tedious meshed well with plot and development.
I also thought this book has a pretty good look at how temptation strikes and how it affects people. Nola is pretty unhappy with her life (or thinks she’s unhappy—she’s an unreliable narrator, and her reflection on her unhappiness don’t always match up with how she feels during certain moments) and struggling with self-doubt and self-esteem issues, and then along comes Jim, someone new and exciting and exactly the opposite of Russ. I’m glad that Pittman doesn’t lay on the symbolism in the book too thickly and only mentions it specifically in her author’s note, because this book could have easily become a preachy, overreaching mess. Instead, the symbolism is subtle and much more effective.
On Shifting Sand can feel pretty long in some parts, and the effectiveness of the summary in telling you exactly what happens in the book actually made me want to read the book less, but Pittman strikes good balance between sympathy and unreliability and does symbolism very well. It was a well-done look at adultery, temptation, and the effects those have on a marriage.