Nell Presser, the hero of Erin McGraw's second novel, The Seamstress Of Hollywood Boulevard, has a particular talent in sewing: Women in her small, turn-of-the-century Kansas farming town come to her with the latest Vogue fashion illustrations and ask her to replicate them, but she goes further. She knows the invisible stitches and tucks each garment needs to create the illusion that the women have the bodies they imagine, rather than the ones they really have. The book's particular enchantment is cast when she turns this skill in subterfuge to other purposes in a fully realized great American journey.
At 15, Nell marries a farmer because she heard he once rescued kittens from under an outhouse, and because her new sod house will mean an end to her father's beatings. Two years later, after two difficult pregnancies, Nell persists in her piecework because her waspish mother-in-law resents its intrusion into household chores. When her husband sells her sewing machine, hoping she'll pay more attention to their fractious daughters and finally give him a son, Nell's secret savings just barely furnish a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, where she joins the legions of single female emigrants as a "shoppie" at a dry-goods store. Slaving away at night in her boarding house, she establishes herself as Madame Annelle, the French-born dressmaker to genteel L.A. society, with a sideline in costumes for the new movie studios; lying about her age, she finds a new husband who seems as attuned as her to the possibilities of their oceanfront life.
McGraw breaks the mold for the obstinate turn-of-the-century female protagonist, but Nell has to compete with McGraw's meticulously researched surroundings for pride of place. Nell's Los Angeles is a frontier town crossed with Tolstoy's Russia: Its older residents are obsessed with preserving the image of propriety against any encroachments, even while they're drawing considerable funds from unsavory speculation in land and water rights. Nell constantly feels the twinge of discarding her small-town mores, but even in California, she's split between refined businesswoman and wide-eyed escapee—a bifurcation made even more painful when the novel takes an dark turn. The sedulous craftsmanship of McGraw's writing, like the neat stitches of her protagonist, makes each development fall out naturally in service to the story.