As The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard opens, the fifteen-year-old Nell Plat aches to be lifted from the strictures of her hardscrabble existence in Kansas. It’s almost as if Nell’s life has been pulled out of her like pages from
a book. Growing up on a farm in Mercer County, most of Nell’s hard-bitten days are spent plowing the fields, feeding her daughters, Lucille and Amelia, and bowing to the needs of her insensitive husband, Jack, who wants nothing more than for her to be a loyal and obedient wife.
As the prairie’s rough grass “surrounds Nell like a belt,” this disconsolate young
woman is left wanting something that she just can’t put a name to. From the outset, it’s pretty obvious that Nell has an uncanny ability to sew, her desire to be behind her battered
Singer carrying her through her hardest days, her mind filled with thoughts of the needle and thread and what she can do with
Ashamed of her unendurable thoughts of babies and a husband she doesn’t love, Nell dreams of the train ticket to Los Angeles, only $110 away.
The visit of the Reverend Farley and the quiet encouragement of her Pa waken Nell to the possibilities of a life in sunny California, where to walk in an orange grove is to be in Eden, where the air smells sweet and tangy at the same time, and where you can see the ocean crashing onto the sand.
Amid the lustrous cloth and gleaming thread, exacting dresses grow more difficult as Nell grows more skilled. Of course, it’s inevitable that she should escape.
Here in Los Angeles with other girls, all strangers to each other, she stumbles into a new life. Like puppets, the girls stay in ramshackle rooming houses while Nell finds employment working in the Ladies Wear sections of a
downtown department store, her “shoppie life” like a way-station to the happiness she has come to California to claim.
A series of male suitors threatens to derail her drive for independence, but her fierce determination to make something of herself ultimately saves the day. Even an involvement with the gangly and kindhearted George cannot thwart her aim of becoming the exclusive seamstress to all of the society ladies of Los Angeles and the stars of Hollywood.
Later, Nell is too quick to forgive her own encumbrance, while George is delighted to find himself ringed with layers of family he hadn’t suspected. Nell battles with her memories of Kansas and the guilt that
she should have been the dutiful wife, a guilt made all too real when her past unexpectedly comes back to haunt her.
Author Erin McGraw embeds Nell’s unfolding drama deep within the social, political and endless possibilities of early 20th century Los Angeles, a city bustling with newfound energy. Nell eventually becomes a new kind of wild-card fashion auteur: no customer who enters her boudoir
has a silhouette she cannot improve.
While the novel falters a bit in the final third, there is much to admire here, especially the author’s colorful descriptions of changing Los Angeles at the turn of the 19th century with its new buildings and new clubs and new religions, “a city characterized by youth and vigor and confidence.” Ultimately, however, this story belongs to Nell and her efforts to exploit her innate skills as a seamstress while also forging a new kind of life for herself. Her journey is a testament to extraordinary spirit, the warp and weave of her sewing machine ever present as she tries fanatically to mend her existence and finally put the mistakes of her past to rest.