Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman

Summary: In Sunderland, England, a city quarantined by the cholera epidemic of 1831, a defiant fifteen-year-old beauty in an elegant blue dress makes her way between shadow and lamplight. A potter's assistant by day and dress lodger by night, Gustine sells herself for necessity in a rented gown, scrimping to feed and protect her only love: her fragile baby boy. She holds a glimmer of hope after meeting Dr. Henry Chiver, a prisoner of his own dark past. But in a world where suspicion of medicine runs rampant like a fever, these two lost souls will become irrevocably linked, as each crosses lines between rich and destitute, decorum and abandon, damnation and salvation. By turns tender and horrifying, The Dress Lodger is a captivating historical thriller charged with a distinctly modern voice...

My review: The Dress Lodger revolves a great deal around cholera morbis and the ignorance that allowed its spread in 19th century England. At the time, there was not a great deal of medical knowledge or public understanding about communicable diseases and this need surfaces frequently throughout the book, and in fact, is one of it's plot-driving elements.

The medical community of the time was struggling to find cadavers to study. The lower-classes had little faith in "sawbones," as they call them, to the point that that no one would allow the bodies of their dead to be hacked to pieces on an autopsy table. Dr. Henry Chivers, tortured by his checkered past, is one such doctor who is struggling to further explore the human anatomy so that he might better understand cholera morbis. His temporary salvation comes in the form of a young girl, Gustine, with an agenda of her own.

Gustine is a potter's assistant turned prostitute in order to care for her infant son--born with an extremely rare heart condition. She rents a dress from her landlord in order to pass for a higher class prostitute as she plies her wares on the streets of Sunderland. Not surprisingly you are treated to quite a few graphic descriptions of Gustine's nightly activities. There is nothing sensual or steamy about these liaisons. They are starkly, brutally written, clearly portraying Gustine's disgust with those she is forced to keep company.

While I had my doubts, Gustine actually ends up to be a sympathetic, yet tragic, character. There were genuine moments of warmth and tenderness between Gustine and her infant son. Her love and concern for him is palpable and terrifyingly relatable--a truly bright spot in the middle of a thoroughly dark novel.

This book was full of moments that took your breath away, not for their beauty, but out of sheer terror and a sense of impending doom. The intensity of detail with which the author set about describing not only Gustine's professional activities, but the medical autopsies performed by Dr. Henry Chiver was astounding. As cholera spreads and bodies begin to appear with increasing rapidity, the pages are filled with some extremely detailed liaisons, dissections, and descriptions of choleric death that left me queasy within a matter of seconds. However, at the same time I almost admired the author's matter-of-factness in describing a situation that others might romanticize or gloss over. Almost.

Ultimately I feel The Dress Lodger was very deftly written and well researched. In spite of the, um, graphic descriptions, in this book I found myself really drawn into the story. The historical aspects of it were very interesting--specifically the varied attitudes and beliefs of the times. I felt it really added to the authenticity of the book and helped tie it into actual history. I don't know if I can say that I liked this book, so much as I can say that I appreciated it. I admired it's intensity and the way that characters lives and stories were woven so smoothly together. Would I read it again? No. Would I recommend that YOU read it? Not on a full stomach.

My rating: 3. Well-written but not for the picky, sensitive, or weak-stomached. DEFINITELY an adult novel. DEFINITE ICK FACTOR. Multiple situations of prostitution, graphic autopsy, and language.

If I could sum this book up in one phrase it would be: EW.


Heather said...

I always have a hard time rating really well written books with difficult subject matter.

MindySue said...

Oh I know. I guess it just comes down to weighing it out. I figure as long as I'm perfectly clear in the review about the writing then I can "rate my heart" on the number.

It WAS really well-written, with developed characters and lots of detail and imagery.

But, the Ew Factor took a big chunk out of it. Even though I know full well that the book wouldn't have worked w/o it.


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