As intricately and finely stitched as a lacy shawl, "The Seamstress" is a debut novel worth its weight. And considering the novel weighs in at a hefty 641 pages, that's saying something.
Frances de Pontes Peebles gives readers a richly imagined, beautifully rendered work of historical fiction that is compulsively readable but so delicately wrought you'll want to linger over the beauty on every page.
This is a novel of two sisters -- a classic archetype of the pretty, well-behaved one and the awkward, rebellious one -- who both find their way into the world. It's also the story of a place, a sweeping saga a la Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove," which used the harsh countryside as a foil to the determined strength and desperate sorrows of the central characters.
The orphaned dos Santos sisters, both trained as seamstresses, are the lovely, refined Emilia and her younger charge, the tall, defiant Luzia.
When young Luzia falls from a mango tree, she is left with a deformed arm and -- in a time when the best a country seamstress can hope for is marriage -- no real prospects.
Enter a gang of cangaceiros, a sort of band of Lone Rangers or Robin Hoods, who both terrorize and assist the people of the countryside. Their leader, a man known as The Hawk, sees something in Luzia, a kindred spirit of sorts, and takes her away to live as the lone woman in this crew of men who dwell in the Caatinga scrub.
Emilia enters a poorly considered marriage with a well-to-do man of the city who impresses her with his suavity and confidence. Unsure of her sister's fate, Emilia does not speak of Luzia to her new family, which values, above all, propriety -- and hardly welcomes its new country mouse daughter-in-law.
Although each sister has chosen her own path, their lives remain connected as the Brazil of the 1920s and 1930s changes.
De Pontes Peebles weaves together the broadcloth of the sisters' lives in such a way that readers will feel her story's essential rightness.
What happens to each of the characters is absolutely what must happen. It's soothing to a reader to be in such assured hands. As the sisters' paths diverge and converge, as the landscape changes and Brazil itself grows up, "The Seamstress" becomes all the more masterful.
Like McMurtry or James Michener, de Pontes Peebles makes her landscape as much of a character as the men and women who people it. The streets of Recife, a bustling Brazilian city, bounce off the page with the scents and sounds of an energetic metropolis on the cusp of change. And the harsh backlands of Brazil, a drought-stricken barren land, gives off a dry, draining heat that pulses in every word. Even the small town where the sisters grow up is vividly painted, and everywhere, in every landscape, looms the uncertainty of the future.
"So death, with all of its rites and rituals, its incense and prayers, its long Masses and white burial hammocks, was common, while life was rare. Life was frightening."
There's fat here, which a stronger editing hand would have trimmed, but it's mostly flavorful fat. Readers shouldn't let the book's length scare them off; when they reach the end, they'll wish for more time with both of the seamstresses.