In “The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights” Kitty Zeldis sweeps us back to experience a time after the Great War, when women not born with a silver spoon in their mouths were limited in their options. This lovely historical fiction presents us with strong female main characters who all also have flaws that make them very relatable. While the action in this novel takes place over the course of a year, we are treated to flashbacks and the characters’ thoughts that give us insight into what their lives were and how they developed into the people we meet at the start of the story. Each character has her own tribulations, and each character must overcome a flaw which makes her life less than it could be.
Beatrice and Alice have recently moved from New Orleans to Prospect Heights, an area in Brooklyn. There they open a dress shop, and we slowly learn their backstory. Beatrice is originally from Russia, and she is Jewish. Although her family was well-to-do in their town in Russia, it didn’t stop the anti-Semitism there from essentially destroying them. Beatrice flees to America and changes her name. In New Orleans, she becomes a successful businesswoman and thus is able to hire a private detective to search for someone. We don’t know who that person is, but the money she’s saved allows her to accomplish her objective of moving to New York to meet that person. She moves there with Alice, who was orphaned, and who has lived with Bea since she was ten.
While Bea has creative ideas about how to repurpose clothes, Alice is the one who can actually do the sewing necessary to create beautiful, stylish and unique dresses. We see that Bea isn’t a very affectionate person, but she has always taken care of Alice and made sure that Alice knew she was safe. Alice was left alone since childhood, and she relies on Bea as the only family she has. Now, when Bea meets Catherine, Alice understandably feels left out. Alice doesn’t know that Catherine is the person Bea had searched for, and Bea keeps Alice in the dark about their relationship. So when Alice sees that Catherine and Bea are becoming close, she feels jealous. Bea’s relationship with Catherine causes ripples in the lives of all three women, and there is some tragedy before the touching ending.
This is not a mystery. There are few twists and turns. Instead, Zeldis has created a thoughtful story about women in the post-WWI era, women who are subject to at least as much misogyny and abuse as the women today. Women are taken advantage of and feel helpless to report the abuse, the rapes, the pedophilia. The characters are effectively drawn, and because of the flaws of each, we empathize with them. The themes include an inability to bear children and the horrors of rape, misogyny, discrimination, anti-Semitism, and other difficult topics. They are all presented realistically and with compassion. The book is gripping not because of the action, but because of our compassion for the three women and our desire to see them arrive at a place in life where they will be happy and satisfied. The individual characters will stay with the reader long after the last page is read.
This would be a popular choice for a book club as there is much to discuss about the many difficult topics. I think the discussion would be lively, with many different opinions about the choices the characters make. In fact, I’d love to partake in such a book club discussion.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com
This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Harper, the publisher, for review purposes.