(Current fiction & past quality fiction)
Back in 2008-09 when “The Seamstress” (Harper Perennial) by Frances de Pontes Peebles was published one reviewer wrote for Amazon, “This book is about the relationship between two sisters as they change and grow and find (or don’t find) what they were looking for. Everything you can imagine happens here — marriage, betrayal, love, death, secrets; and some of the best charged dialogue written in recent years.”
Examiner recently came across the novel for the first time and picked up the story, in fact lived it, every evening before sleep, savoring it page by page for all 641 pages. The publisher’s pitch:
“As seamstresses, the young sisters Emília and Luzia dos Santos know how to cut, mend, and conceal—useful skills in the lawless backcountry of Brazil, where ruthless land barons feud with bands of outlaw cangaceiros, trapping innocent residents in the crossfire. Emília, a naive romantic, dreams of falling in love with a gentleman and escaping to a big city. Quick-tempered Luzia also longs for escape, finding it in her craft and secret prayers to the saints she believes once saved her life. But when Luzia is abducted by cangaceiros led by the infamous Hawk and Emília stumbles into a marriage with the son of a wealthy and politically powerful doctor, the sisters’ quiet lives diverge in ways they never would have imagined.”
Examiner recommends the novel for its rich context and beautifully executed telling of a story. The author’s skill really shines when she skillfully understates dramatic moments. That puts Examiner at odds with several reviewers, including Publishers Weekly:
“This lavishly detailed if overlong debut novel set in 1920s and ’30s Brazil follows two sisters who share excellent sewing skills, but take divergent paths into adulthood. Crippled by a childhood accident and mocked for her deformities, Luzia is considered unmarriageable. So after a bandit kidnaps her, she realizes that marrying the outlaw leader may be her only chance at independence and happiness. Beautiful Emília, yearning for the refinements of the big city, spurns her many rural suitors, but—reeling from her sister’s abduction and her aunt’s subsequent death—enters a disastrous marriage with a wealthy, suave stranger who has plenty of untoward secrets and a mother who treats Emília like dirt. The sisters’ paths collide after Luzia, now mythologized as a vicious criminal known as the Seamstress, becomes targeted by Emília’s criminologist father-in-law, unaware of the two women’s connection. Though a good number of passages could have been left on the cutting-room floor, the leisurely pace and attention to detail immerses the reader in both gilded halls and unsavory bandit camps.”
Publishers Weekly in calling the novel “overly long” and praising its “lavishly detailed” conveyance created sort of a critical tongue twister. Gee whizz, guys, perhaps some of the length came from the lavish details, huh? Highly recommended.
Amazon provided this: Frances de Pontes Peebles was born in Recife, Brazil and raised in Miami, Florida. In 2000, she received a BA from the University of Texas at Austin and, in 2003, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. After graduating from the Workshop, Peebles was awarded fellowships from the Fulbright Program, Brazil’s Sacatar Foundation, and the Michener-Copernicus Society. Her short stories have appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories Anthology 2005, Zoetrope: All Story, The Indiana Review, and Missouri Review. In 2008, her debut novel, “The Seamstress,” received the Elle Grand Prix for Fiction.
In 2009, Peebles and her husband returned to Brazil to manage her family’s farm, where they grow shade-coffee, bananas, cashews, and many native fruits. They also raise goats, pigs, and cater to the whims of seven spoiled dogs.
Examiner looks forward to her next novel, even if it is just about raising goats, pigs, and seven spoiled dogs. The hope is that it will be equally overly long.