A Perfect Silhouette
Judith Miller’s A Perfect Silhouette is a charming if over-moralized story of one young woman who must go to work in the mills of antebellum Manchester, New Hampshire, in order to provide support for her widowed sister and her children. Mellicent “Mellie” Blanchard, a former private tutor, faces a steep learning curve as she adjusts to millwork—the roaring noise and humidity of the weaving and spinning rooms, the ten-hour day punctuated by rushed meal times, and the rigidity of her landlady, who is an integral part of the whole system. Mellie begins to find a balance by starting to work in a photography shop in town using her skill at German paper cutting, and by meeting and growing closer to William Morgan, who introduces himself as a mechanic at the mill.
A Perfect Silhouette provides an accessible, detailed impression of Manchester as a mill town in this period. Readers get a sense of its layout. Mellie is a sympathetic character, although I don’t think she undergoes any great transformation in the novel. William Morgan changes more, and the sections of the novel written from his perspective are more interesting. But the remainder of the characters seem underdeveloped, even for supporting roles. In the dialogue, characters spell out their motivations and reasoning, and give each other the benefit of the doubt to a degree I found unrealistic. The narration also often over-elaborates on the moral implications of the characters’ actions and decisions. That said, the inter-class dynamics are well done. The novel’s moral sense is strongest there.
This is a cozy novel with a compelling heroine in which the setting is nicely drawn. If readers interested in the early days of American industrialization can consider the novel’s tone as part of that setting, they will enjoy Mellie’s story.