The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard
There’s little room for creativity in Mercer County, Kansas at the turn of the 20th century. The stress and hardship of daily life in rural Kansas allows little time for luxury. Still, Nell Plat, a teenage wife and mother, finds time for sewing every day. Nell does not fit the mold of the ideal frontier wife—she cannot cook, she doesn’t get along with her overbearing mother-in-law, and she longs for a better life in California. Saving the money that she makes sewing, she escapes, abandoning her two difficult children and her moody husband in search of freedom and adventure.
California meets Nell’s expectations, but it also defies them—the work is just as difficult, the living conditions are still poor, and the overbearing mother-in-law is replaced with the snooty customers Nell serves as a shopgirl in a series of department stores. Christening herself Madame Annelle, Nell uses her sewing skills as an escape, making shirtwaists for her fellow shopgirls, and graduating to designing and creating couture dresses. But shedding her old life comes with risks, and her past never fully disappears, even when her dreams of working in Hollywood are finally realized.
What sets McGraw’s novel apart from other stories of reinvention is the intelligent prose and vivid characterizations. Nell spends the bulk of her adult life looking over her shoulder, wondering when the cracks in her personal narrative will cause her carefully-built life to collapse. McGraw captures this tension effectively, while presenting a portrait of Los Angeles as a new American metropolis and the antidote to the ordinary. We now see Hollywood as a place of reinvention—a wonderland where a young woman from the middle of nowhere can become a couturier to the stars. The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard gives us a glimpse of how that myth began, and does so with elan.