Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

The SpymistressJennifer Chiaverini is best known for her quilting fiction series, Elm Creek Quilts.  The varied characters, changing settings, and quilts, the "thread" that connected them all is what kept me coming back for each new book. Somewhere along the way, I did miss a few, but I always liked Chiaverini's work, possibly because she is a Wisconsin author.  So when she veered into historical fiction with her book Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, I was delighted that our bookclub chose it.  While fascinated by the relationship between Mrs. Lincoln and her black dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, I thought the book itself lacked something.  That same "something" is missing in her next Civil War novel, The Spymistress.  Again, Chiaverini has selected a relatively unknown woman, someone whose impact has slipped through the cracks of history.  This time the heroine is Elizabeth Van Lew, a Virginian who sided with the Union and became a Union spy, often risking her safety and spending her own money to care for Union prisoners of war.  Again, Chiaverini has done impeccable research and that shows in the writing. Then what is lacking?  Perhaps I am being too picky, but I have to admit my book club friends agree.  While Elizabeth is a fascinating person, this narrative doesn't capture her.  Others commented that they felt like they were reading a history book, not historical fiction.  Now, I actually like reading nonfiction and especially history, so I would have prefered IF the author had chosen to write this as nonfiction, sticking to the facts and letting the readers in on her lengthy research.  There are some controversies over Elizabeth's activities, her demeanor and habits.  In good quality nonfiction, the author shares that.  If there are disputes over events, all of that is shared, too.  Those variance of opinion can be interesting and I would have been more drawn to that than the novelization of her life.

I guess my bottom line is, if I am reading historical fiction, even with real people in it, I want to be taken to that place.  I want to be a witness to everything that is happening.  I want to "feel" the people and the voice given to them by the author should ring solidly true.  The story, the characters, and the history need to share importance.  The consensus of our book club was that in The Spymistress, the character voice was weak and the history was a little too heavy laden.  Obviously, well researched, much of it done right at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, The Spymistress may be a successful read for some, but  for me, I wish Chiaverini had tried her hand at nonfiction, trying a style similar to that of Killing Lincoln or The Assassin's Accomplice.  While one book club member (this was her first Chiaverini book) said she would not read another, I know that I will because I have been entertained by her writing many times in the past and I hope to be again.


  1. My church book club read Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker last year. We had very mixed feelings about it. Many found it slow and too heavy on the history (as you did with this one). I think I will give this book a pass. I listened to the audiobook of The Traitor's Wife by Alison Pataki. That was a good "read".

    1. I'll be checking on THE TRAITOR'S WIFE.