Posted by: koolwine | June 12, 2011

Brazil: The Seamstress

Rugged outlaws and high society women alike swoon over the designs sewn by two young sisters.

Country Focus: Brazil (Brasil in Portuguese)

The Seamstress
by Frances de Pontes Peebles (Brazilian-American)
Originally published: Harper-Collins, 2008.
My edition: Harper Perennial, 2009.  641 pgs.

Acclaim: Winner of the “Elle’s Lettres” Fiction Grand Prix; Winner of the Friends of American Writers Award for Fiction

Genre: Historical Fiction

Time period: 1928-1935

Summary:  The Seamstress‘s narration alternates between Emília and Luzia, sisters and excellent seamstresses .  Tall, bold and hampered by a bum arm, Luzia makes a poor candidate for marriage.  A band of cangaceiros, Brazil’s scrubland outlaws, abduct Luzia, who endures and then excels in her new environment.  Emília dreams of romance and lives for the few small luxuries within her reach: perfumed soap and Fon Fon magazine.  Reality does not live up to her expectations when she marries and moves to the coastal city of Recífe. To fill her time, Emília starts a fashion atelier and dives into humanitarian work.   The two sisters keep track of each by reading stories about each other in the newspaper:  Emília appears regularly in the society section; Luzia, known only by her nickname “The Seamstress” merits front page news for murder.


After the sixth surveyor’s funeral, journalists speculated that the Seamstress, not the Hawk, had ordered the decapitations.  She was merciless, the papers said.  She had no shame.  Emília had heard this expression many times before.  Back in Taquaritinga, when she wore heeled shoes, or rouged her face, or when she and Degas took unchaperoned walks during their brief courtship, Emília heard people whisper about her: That girl has no shame!  Shame was admirable in a woman.


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  1. What an enjoyable read! I found it to be an absorbing narrative carrying me back and forth between the two sisters and their environments. I liked the comparisons and contrasts between the two. While two sisters are the main characters of the story, as a male reader the story was very interesting to me, too. Plenty of adventure and machismo to go around and the narrative of the two sisters’ lives carried me along nicely. Some lines that caught my attenton: “Necks were like the branches of caatinga trees: thin but tough. There were tendons, muscles, vertebrae, and other sinewy structures that made the cutting difficult. There were differences in men, too. Some necks were thicker than others. Luzia found herself evaluating men by their necks: which would be hard to slice, which would be easy.”

    I also appreciated the details about the cultures of both the backcountry and the city in Brasil at that time. I feel like my perpsective has been broadened by being taken into worlds I had not yet encountered.

    “The New families were not interested in land, but in business. They were the Raposos – a dark-haired clan whose women had the subtle sheen of mustaches on their upper lips…” When I was in high school in southern Illinois we had a young woman from Sao Paulo as a student teacher in history class. She was somewhat attractive and her attractiveness was enhanced to us teenage boys by her brown skin, her dark hair and her accented English. But then there was that mustache… Perhaps she was descended from these Raposos.

    Thanks again for another excellent recommendation. On to Thailand and “Sightseeing”.


    • Oh good! That’s a great quote that you pulled. Very funny that you associated the mustachioed Raposos with your high school teacher. Of all the things she would have wanted to be remembered for…


  2. I completely forgot to mention one of the “common threads” (just getting that pun out of the way) I have with the book. As a toddler I was babysat by my great-aunt who wove throw rugs on a loom. I spent countless hours by her side sitting on the bench in front of the loom as she passed the shuttles and shoved the framed closed to tighten the strands of cloth. I learned how to count by counting the passes of shuttles she made. I was enraptured by the coming together of a whole piece from all those strings of cloth. When I was older my mother enlisted my help in cutting the pieces of patterns from McCall’s dress and blouse patterns and then pinning them to the material she had selected. I finally graduated to actually cutting the material according to the patterns. I learned to cut boldly (or “bravely” as Aunt Sophia taught the sisters). Later, in my religious studies this would help me understand Martin Luther’s “Sin boldly”.


    • That is such a cool memory of your great-aunt and learning to count. I’ve never done any sewing so I wasn’t able to relate to that aspect of the novel, but it’s neat to hear that your mom gave you lessons similar to Aunt Sophia’s “cut bravely” instruction.


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