The Dressmaker’s Dowry

Written by Meredith Jaeger
Review by Val Adolph

In her first novel, Meredith Jaeger links a present-day San Francisco career woman with two immigrant dressmakers from the mid-19th century. They are connected through the affluent Havensworth family, whose handsome sons play major roles in both stories.

Sarah Havensworth is the contemporary narrator. A journalist working on a novel, she has married into the Havensworth family but doesn’t feel like she belongs. In researching her novel, she uncovers newspaper accounts of the two missing dressmakers, which sets in motion her search for the truth of what happened to the young women. Her discoveries bring to life the unique character of post-Gold Rush San Francisco.

Hanna Schaeffer, the protagonist from 1867, is shown in the third person. Her adventures carry the main thrust of the plot as she desperately tries to find her missing friend and fellow seamstress, Margaret, an enigmatic young Irishwoman. Hanna’s search leads her to experience the lives of the Irish living and working dockside in San Francisco—and also to a romance with a man of undreamed-of wealth who is eager to share his life and lifestyle with her.

The characterizations of the Havensworth men are flat and formulaic, but the two heroines are well-realized. However, their contrasting viewpoints make the transitions between the two eras unnecessarily jarring. The author vividly presents the poverty of many immigrants in mid-Victorian San Francisco and the prejudices they faced. The novel has elements of romance in both the historical and modern stories and is a quick and easy read.