Thank-you to Amazon Vine for my advanced reading copy of this novel. For a full synopsis of this novel provided by Goodreads please click here.
This novel is told from the viewpoint of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson. Helpmeet to her father and his almost constant companion, Patsy not only travelled with him to France and witnessed his rise to the Presidency but also kept his secrets close to her chest. This novel utilizes the letters that Thomas Jefferson wrote and received in his life, whilst reminding us that it was Patsy who guarded these letters. Thus it is likely that she passed on an edited history to future generations.
Truthfully, I find this book very difficult to review. I hate that I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as others have professed. For me though, the spark just wasn’t there. Patsy Jefferson was an intriguing historical figure, yet I couldn’t relate to her within these pages. She was a two-dimensional figure from long ago that told me her story as an older person looking back over her life. It was bland. Not at all what I would have expected from the glowing reviews I’ve read, plus my knowledge of how great an author Stephanie Dray is. I’m not quite sure how the collaboration worked between the two authors, however when it comes to author collaboration Stephanie Dray knows what she is doing. She was a part of two of the most amazing multiple author novels that I’ve ever read: “A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii” and “A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica’s Rebellion”. In fact, in the latter of these two it was Stephanie Dray who rounded off the novel and made it complete for me. Therefore I can only summarize that it was the extensive research that made this novel so bland for me.
Let me explain. This novel is based upon “thousands of letters and original sources” and therefore the historical research is paramount to the novel. Of course this isn’t a bad thing, history is compelling in itself, however I do feel that when the lines are so tightly set the author runs the risk of also putting their imagination on a tight leash and thus creating a very prosaic novel.
For me personally I read historical fiction for two purposes. One, to learn, and two, to be entertained. If I just wanted to learn I would read the original sources for myself. If it’s something that I am fascinated by then I will read both fact and fiction books about it. First I gather as much knowledge as I can about a subject and then I read a novel that brings it to life for me. I want it to be more than just facts on a page, I want the figures to jump to life and show me who they are. For me, this is what was missing in this novel. The entertainment factor.
Let me give an example. Patsy is enrolled in a convent for educational purposes whilst her father is in France. Evidently something about it appealed to her because she later wished to become a nun . I wanted to know what exactly appealed to her and what life inside the convent was like for her. Was it a harsh environment? What were the sleeping arrangements? What clothes did she have to wear? What did she learn there? I really wanted to know about life inside the convent but all that was mentioned was that her father’s secretary William Short visited her there and that she made one friend that teased her about her feelings for him. I have no clue as to what appealed to Patsy so much that she wished to take her vows. Even if there is no factual evidence as to why, her character was so indistinctive that I was not even able to deduce a reason for myself. This is where the story-telling is supposed to come in. The facts are known, the ingredients are set, now is when the fictional salt and pepper should be sprinkled in to create a more lively and exciting recipe.
Nonetheless, I did learn a lot from this book. If I take a step back and do not look at it as a novel then I can honestly say that I have admiration for the work that these two historians have created. The mix of original sources and deduced conclusions from these original sources lead to quite an interesting read. As a non-fiction book this would have been brilliant. Yet unfortunately I feel that I must judge it as what it has been proclaimed to be: a novel. And as a novel, in my opinion, it is sadly lacking.