She weaves a tangled web
Aharsh prairie wind scours the pages of Erin McGraw’s beautifully written second novel, “The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard.” Even after Nell Plat uproots herself from Mercer County, Kan., and follows her dreams to California, gusts of memory buffet her new life as a shopgirl and aspiring costume designer in early 20th century Los Angeles.
McGraw, who has also written three short story collections, crafts masterful sentences that embody the landscapes her heroine inhabits.
Kansas in 1899 confines and maddens 15-year-old Nell: “Hot and itchy, I would stroll out to lean on the garden fence and look at the dim horizon, as if it might have changed in the last ten minutes. . . . [B]ehind me the onions burned.”
Nell can’t cook -- a vital female skill in this hardscrabble world -- and although she can sew brilliantly, this is almost an affront. When she starts making fine dresses for the county’s ladies and handing some earnings to her mother-in-law (stowing the rest), all her husband Jack sees is that she’s not doing her chores.
A mother at 16 and pregnant again, Nell knows there is nothing ahead but more babies and chores. Sewing is her ticket out, as her secret stash grows toward the $110 a train ticket to Los Angeles costs.
But this is no simple tale of liberation. McGraw shows hard, fierce Nell rejecting Jack’s tentative pride in her. "[I]n town this afternoon . . . I could tell which dresses you made,” he says. “There’s no one else got a wife like you. . . . Christ, Nell, it’s a compliment.”
Her stony response: “Not one I care for.”
Nell doesn’t want to make a better life with Jack; she wants a whole new life. So she leaves behind 1-year-old Lucille and infant Amelia and heads for that city where people go to reinvent themselves.
McGraw’s evocation of Los Angeles is as vividly economical as her portrait of Kansas. Nell gets a job at Levisky’s Ladies Wear, downtown on Spring Street. Then she upgrades, first to Carter’s Department Store in Glendale and, after that, to more fashionable shops in tonier locations, “moving toward Pasadena one storefront at a time.”
Pasadena is the Promised Land she imagined in Kansas, “the Eden without dark or dirt, where prosperity shone from the shiny motorcars at the curbs.” To get there, she assumes the name Madame Annelle; her modest shirtwaists for fellow “shoppies” bring her enough money to start a business as a fashionable seamstress. Fascinated by the burgeoning movie industry, she wangles piecework from a costume designer at Universal.
By this time, it’s 1914, and Nell has met a man who shares her thirst for self-improvement: George Curran, recently arrived from Indiana and “moving up smartly with Standard Oil.”
She knocks 10 years off her age on their marriage license application, and they begin a partnership devoted to saving for a house of their own. When Nell gives birth to a daughter in 1918, she vows: “Through Mary, I would make up for everything I had done wrong.”
From this moment on, McGraw’s wonderful novel becomes slightly less wonderful. Carefully drawn though George is, he lacks Nell’s sharp specificity, and the Currans’ immersion in the “seven-step pathway to success” is too obviously a thematic device.
The book’s first half is driven by Nell’s ambition and her roiling emotions; the second half runs on plot. It’s too neat that George brandishes a pamphlet for their oceanfront dream house on the very day Nell is offered a full-time job at Universal.
And it’s much too neat when -- just as George is saying, “You’re a mother. You can’t just go to Hollywood to work every day” -- there’s a knock at the door, and Nell opens it to find her two abandoned daughters.
Lucille and Amelia have renamed themselves Lisette and Aimee, a backhanded claim of kinship with the famous Madame Annelle. Reading about this “seamstress to the stars” in Kansas, they suspected she might be the Nell Plat who ran off when they were babies.
They play along with Nell, who introduces them as her younger sisters, but they exact a price. They want to be stars, and they expect her to help.
Lisette, the tough, angry image of her mother at a similar age, is intent on making bitterly clear the damage Nell has wrought, while inflicting some damage of her own.
Here, McGraw writes with the keen insight that distinguishes the novel’s earlier chapters. Yet it doesn’t feel as fresh, although its ruefully mature resolution makes considerable amends.
Still, if “The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard” has its flaws, it is memorable for McGraw’s pitch-perfect account of Nell’s discontented youth and her avid rise.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”