Friday, December 19, 2008

The Tailor's Daughter

Book: The Tailor's Daughter
Author: Janice Graham
Category: Historical Fiction
Setting: Victorian England
Series: No
Sensuality: Subtle
Growing up in Victorian England, where her father owns a tailoring shop on fashionable Savile Row, Veda Grenfell and her family have always assumed she would one day make a suitable match. But when a fever leaves her deaf at the age of sixteen, Veda resolves to prove her worth in a realm that is usually off limits to respectable women. Dressing in gentlemen’s clothes, Veda reinvents herself as a tailor to London’s smart young set. Her beauty and spirit attract unexpected suitors, including a young viscount---but when passion turns to betrayal, Veda embarks on a treacherous journey that will lead her into a world of deception and murder.
What initially drew me to The Tailor's Daughter was the unusual heroine, and the even more unusual trade that her family was in. It seemed like a change from my normal Victorian reads, which was what I was looking for. I went in to reading this book with a certain idea of what it would be about in my head, and found that all of my preconceptions were wrong. The Tailor's Daughter turned out to be a much deeper read than had I thought it would be.

The story starts out with Veda telling of her life from a child. She was brought up in a family of trade. Her family's business is Grenfell & Son, a mens tailoring shop. From a very young age Veda takes to the family business, she likes fine material, and loves to cut and sew and create beautiful men's clothing. Her love of the trade isn't something that either of her parents encourage because they do not want Veda's reputation socially tainted by having her directly involved with her father's operations. Instead, her father tries to groom her older brother Reggie, who is more into books and literary pursuits than tailoring, to take over the business and steers Veda towards the upbringing of a genteel lady so that she will be able to make a good match. Ultimately, the stifling demands of their father lead to Reggie turning away and the family suffers a great tragedy for it.

When things look like they may be on the mend another tragedy strikes when Veda becomes deathly ill. After surviving a fever that almost killed her, Veda realizes that she no longer has her hearing. Her whole life is turned upside down in an instant, leaving her with no marriage prospects. Everything that she thought she would become--a wife, mother, lady of genteel society--is taken away with her hearing. At first the blow is shocking, and leaves her feeling sorry for herself, but slowly, with the help of her brother's once tutor, Mr. Nicholls, Veda learns how to survive in a world without hearing. She learns to read lips, and to use gestures to communicate with those close to her.

Soon she has a suitor in Mr. Nicholls, and another in the head cutter of her father's shop, Mr. Mr. Balducci, who has taken a liking to Veda and hopes to secure his place within her family's business by marrying her. But Veda's heart belongs with Lord Harry Ormelie, a Viscount that she met when she was still able to hear. Their romance is a forbidden one for many reasons, the main one being Veda's station. The attraction causes much ado in the book and flame is added to the intensely burning fire when deception strikes and Veda finds herself in a world where she can trust no one, and where family secrets lead to murder.

One thing that is a constant in the story is that Veda is deaf. There is never a moment after Veda loses her hearing that it is forgotten that she suffers that disadvantage. This is not because her deafness reiterated over and over, because it isn't, it stems from the fact that Veda, as a person, changes dramatically after her deafness comes into play. She must light candles, which are costly, in order to read lips in dim light, she carries around a slate and chalk to use as a communication aid when it is too hard to lip read, and she uses hand and body gestures to interact with her good friend, Ester.

Veda never stops trying to find ways to get along in a world of hearing people, even though doing so in the Victorian time period was hard. There were few people who were willing or able to teach a deaf person, and the few schools that existed for the hearing impaired were sad excuses, not allowing children to use their hands as a form of communication. Veda's struggle with hearing loss is very real. There is no miraculous recovery or communication tool, she never masters lip reading, and finds it a strain on her eyes and mind to follow long conversations. Her voice changes and people tell her she sounds strange, she is snubbed because of her disability, and it is also used against her. But Veda preservers in the most remarkable of ways.

For the most part, The Tailor's Daughter is a really enjoyable book, but I do have a few quibbles. First, the amount of tragedy to strike Veda became overwhelming at a certain point, and I wondered if she would ever get a break? It made me not trust that anything good would come from the story. Second, as I mentioned in a previous post, there were moments where I was jarred from the book because of musings that appeared to come from a medical book and not from Veda's thoughts. Like this one:
A half-hour intensive session was enough to strain my eyes and tax my concentration. To read lips, the mind must learn to register lip patterns while working to select the correct meaning from a vast number of possibilities. Consonants and vowels are formed by tongue movements of which many are scarcely visible, and certain groups of consonants like p, b, m, or sh, sh, and j are indistinguishable. I despaired of ever understanding moving lips.
Maybe it's just me, but the bolded does not seem to be something a young, Victorian era girl would think.

And finally there was the burgeoning romance between Harry and Veda that left me skeptical. Veda came off as infatuated with Harry, I accounted this to her age at the time, as she was only sixteen. It also came off false because Veda did not know Harry, only that he was something of a cad and he was nice to her once, therefore the reader did not know Harry, which made her instant desire for him unrealistic. It took Veda growing up and losing her hearing for me to see her interest in him as anything more than puppy love, and then I had trouble with Harry. The difference in their class made it hard for me to believe that Harry could be truly interested in Veda. I understood his attraction to her, but it took a while for me to warm up to him seriously wanting to be with Veda. When more about Harry was learned, and his character became less of an enigma, I was finally able to accept their romance and it then took on a poignant feel that was simply heartfelt.

In the context of their classes a love like theirs would have been hard pressed to work, and in many ways it didn't, which kept with the tragic realities of the story and of the time. And maybe it was because of the gritty realism prevalent throughout the book that the ending seemed a little too neat for me. Though, by the end of the story I truly wanted Veda to find a slice of lasting happiness, I didn't expect it to be wrapped up cutely in a neat little bow. On the other hand, after all of the suffering she went through, maybe that was exactly what was needed.

Besides Veda, there was another star in the story and that was the clothing. Tailoring is as much a catalyst in moving things forward as Veda's disability. The attention to detail is not spared when it comes to portraying the clothing that Veda made. So, the story is not just Veda's, it belongs to her family's trade as well. Ms. Graham has woven a entrancing tale with The Tailor's Daughter. The Victorian era comes to life beautifully through the eyes of Veda. All of the characters are portrayed in such stunning imagery that they too became very real. My minor problems with the book aside, I can not deny that The Tailor's Daughter was otherwise immensely enjoyable. Grade B.


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