The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott is a vivid, romantic, and compelling historical novel. Tess thinks she’s had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired to be a personal maid on the Titanic’s doomed voyage. Once on board, she catches the eye of two men: a kind sailor and an enigmatic millionaire. On the fourth night, disaster strikes, and amidst the chaos—and the desperate urging of two very different suitors—Tess barely escapes with her life.
We were so taken with The Dressmaker‘s geometric romance that we asked Kate about her favorite literary love triangles. Read on for her top five picks, plus, click to read an excerpt from The Dressmaker and to download our free reading group guide.
Even the mention of love triangles can trigger a twinge of heartache. Anyone who has ever found herself (or himself) caught in one has tasted confusion, guilt, decision, abandonment, forgiveness—the list of what is possible goes on and on. So it comes as no surprise, when you think about it, that love triangles have shaped some of the most compelling stories in all of literature. Three human beings in a triangle? The stories pour out: stories of self-sacrifice, predatory actions, obliviousness, selfishness, murder—and fantasy. The plight of a divided soul is rich territory, and the mix can be masterful, touching many of us where it hurts.
Here are my nominations for five of the most unforgettable literary triangles of all.
1. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Scarlett’s passion for the pale, cerebral Ashley Wilkes is classic. He is reserved and indecisive, and what draws a woman more than a man who steps back from her, forcing her to step forward? When the decisive, strong Rhett Butler comes on the scene, she cannot see that he is by far a better match for her. As a teenager, I fell in love with Rhett and wanted to send her warnings—Scarlett, open your eyes. The man she needed, with whom she could flourish, was there for her—but she couldn’t see him. How can she only find out how wrong she was in the last pages of the book? Well, that’s what makes it a magnificent story.
2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Nick Carraway relates this cautionary story about obsession, giving the reader the necessary distance between a mysterious Jay Gatsby—rich, a draw onto himself—and the breathtakingly shallow, careless Daisy Buchanan, who is married to the equally shallow Tom Buchanan. It is a cautionary tale of how far one might go to reclaim a lost love, losing all sense of proportion—a powerful, human story. Gatsby begins as an enigma, then, taken down by his obsession with Daisy, he is destroyed. Fitzgerald’s novel encompasses so much of what we hope for, want to believe in, and lose. Required reading for anyone yearning for the unattainable (and perhaps worthless?) love.
3. The Love Detectives by Agatha Christie
The unfortunate Sir James Dwighton, in a stormy love triangle with his wife and her lover, is murdered. The prime suspects are obvious. And for those of us who love Agatha Christie, the story is a classic murder mystery. But the most fascinating triangle was actually in Christie’s own life. In an attempt to win back her unfaithful husband’s love, Christie staged an accident and disappeared for several days, hoping he would realize how much he loved her and return to her. The story of the famous author’s mysterious disappearance made world-wide news—until someone recognized her hiding out in a remote village. Sadly, her husband was not won back. He divorced her and married his mistress. The triangle was shattered, but not in the way an Agatha Christie heroine would have preferred.
4. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat slated for execution after the Revolution, is married to Lucie Manette. Sidney Carton is a dissolute lawyer who is secretly in love with Manette, hoping his love for her can redeem his misspent life. But his love is not returned. Carton goes to the guillotine in place of Darnay, the ultimate sacrifice for a loved one’s happiness. It is a tale of selfless love, a rare outcome for love triangles (how can we not salute the film Casablanca?)—but human nature can transcend self-interest, giving us rich and rewarding literature.
5. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Newland Archer, poised to marry the well-connected May Welland, finds himself drawn to the Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s bold cousin whose recent separation from her husband has caused a scandal. He soon realizes he is marrying the wrong woman, but—faced with the inexorable and relentless demands of respectable behavior in 1870—he is trapped. He does the honorable thing, even though he and Ellen continue to love each other from a distance. Trying once more, Archer prepares to leave May, but discovers she is pregnant. It is final—he and Ellen have no future together. That brand of self-denial isn’t popular in our time of easy divorce. And yet how many love triangles hide the quiet realization that the right partner came along at the wrong time?