Smartly stitched story

Sometimes, if I hit a couple of bad books in a row, I have to remind myself why I read novels. Erin McGraw's "The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard" reminded me from page one.

This is a perfectly engrossing read. The setting is Kansas and California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the premise is pure Great American Novel: Girl who doesn't fit in on the High Plains in the sodhouse homestead strikes out on her own to find a better day in the Golden State.

But there is nothing clichéd about the storytelling. McGraw is a pro, with glittering novels and short stories ("The Good Life," "The Baby Tree," "Lies of the Saints") adorning her literary neckline. Her Nell Presser, the title seamstress who "couldn't cook but could sew," is a fully realized three-dimensional juggernaut of a heroine who cuts a swath through this ruthlessly researched broadcloth of a novel.

Ruthless, because McGraw uses the same single-minded passion in describing the process of choosing, patterning, cutting and putting together fabric -- with just as much detail, even carnal appetite -- as Nell herself uses to sew clothes. "Cold Mountain" comes to mind, but McGraw's research rollicks, while Charles Frazier's mosied.

The world Nell inhabits is also fully realized: first, Kansas, a stifling, dead-end place, yet strangely animated with humor and dreams denied but not denatured. Unlike many seek-one's-fortune novels, the Kansas of "The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard" is a place the author loves, despite her need to drive her heroine away from it.

That love makes all the difference later in the novel, when Nell complains to a fellow expatriate that "I thought we put Kansas behind us."

"Don't be silly," says the woman, a former preacher's wife turned movie mogul's wife. "We brought it with us. Kansas is the secret to our success."

McGraw's Southern California is dead on, impressing this native Californian with a living, breathing early-20th-century Los Angeles, a town not only of blinding desert sunlight, grimy rooming houses, sludge in the water taps (this is pre-Hoover Dam times) and manure swept to the curbs, but also the orange trees, nasturtiums and shingled Craftsman bungalows that define California residential charm today -- not to mention the nailed-together back lots of the nascent movie industry. You can smell the plywood and the makeup.

Film is the hidden engine that kicks the book into high gear. Nell's ambitions as a clothing maker are boundless -- she would aspire to the Nobel Prize for Stitching if one were given -- but the money to be made pinning hems and sewing a French seam is limited. What really feeds Nell's restless need for a challenge is to be a costume designer for the stars.

Then there is Nell's family life -- complex, full of pain and tough choices, always threatening to swallow her career. The cast of characters McGraw assembles are stellar and flawless in their flaws and virtues, including Nell's three daughters, unforgettable and utterly different from one another.

If the engine of the plot hesitates a bit toward the last third of the book, it still drives the reader smartly to the end. "The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard" invites the reader in for a cup of tea and ends up pushing you onto the dance floor to smack out a Charleston.

I reveled in the dialogue -- sometimes sharpened so tightly I got a paper cut -- and the language, which takes advantage of a time that threw its pre-video age energy into rhetorical fireworks. Nell, plain-spoken Kansan though she be, makes me believe her delicious diction is native to her self: "The ladies of Los Angeles were mounting a genteel war against breeches in comportment, and proper suits were the front line in their battle."

Individual period words sparkle like beads on a gown: "hoyden," "shoppie," "catchpenny," as well as the now almost forgotten phrases made new for when they were new: "Whoopsie-daisy!" "Okey-dokey!" "Swanky!" "Hubba hubba!"

Yes, McGraw reminds her readers why we read novels. She is a fearless guide with a clear-eyed awareness that not only is storytelling a kind of piecing of fabric together, but that life itself unfolds as story and is interpreted in storytelling. "The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard" is based on the life of McGraw's grandmother, and my fond hope is that this book is only the first in a series of tale about Nell Presser. There is so much more of the 20th century still to be lived in Nell's and her daughters' lives. There are many pieces in this family quilt still to be joined.