Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Fiction Review: America's First Daughter

I missed our previous book group meeting and groaned to myself when I saw which book the group had selected for our next read - a 600-page historical novel about Thomas Jefferson's daughter. I was prepared to hate it. In fact, I planned on not reading the whole thing. I started my library copy just one week ahead of our meeting and figured I'd see how far I got for the discussion and then set it aside. Boy, was I wrong. I absolutely loved America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, read the entire book in record time, and then read every single page at the end - author's notes, historical notes, acknowledgements, and more. I never wanted it to end. This historically accurate novel written from the perspective of Jefferson's oldest daughter was fascinating and compelling.

The novel opens in the days after Jefferson's death, when his eldest daughter, Patsy, is going through his letters and personal papers. That frames the rest of the novel, in which each chapter begins with a real excerpt from a letter to or from Jefferson, and Patsy's story of their lives together. Her telling begins when she was just eight years old in 1781, and her family was chased out of their home at Monticello in the middle of the night, by the news that the British were coming and planning to burn their home down. They survived that crisis, but Patsy's mother died not long after, and Jefferson was sunk into a severe depression. Patsy had vowed to her mother on her deathbed to take care of her father, and she took that vow very seriously throughout her entire life, becoming his constant companion, seeing him through that depression and much, much more. She followed her father to Paris, where he was assigned as Ambassador to France and they witnessed the start of the French Revolution, just a few short years after surviving the American one. They returned to Monticello and together experienced a lifetime of trials, triumphs, and losses as Patsy married and went on to have 13 (!) children, filling Monticello with grandchildren beloved to Jefferson, while his career continued, almost to the end of his life at age 83.

I could fill this review with the fascinating story of Patsy's life with her father, but I don't want to spoil all the twists and turns this true story makes along the way. The title of the novel comes from the fact that Jefferson pledged to his cherished wife on her deathbed that he would never take another wife, so when he became President, Patsy took on the role of First Lady (Daughter), hosting parties in the President's Mansion and helping her father politically. Patsy's own life is covered in detail here, too, as the story is told entirely from her perspective - including her coming-of-age in Paris, the love of her life, her abusive husband, and all those children (and grandchildren), as well as her support of her father's political career. The novel also delved into two topics I found especially interesting: Jefferson's very complicated feelings about slavery, as the author of the line, "All men are created equal" (he was morally against it but financially dependent on it) and his complex relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, whom he seemed to truly love and fathered several children with (she was actually his wife's half-sister and looked like her!).

Patsy's story was interesting and engaging in its own right, but I was also fascinated by the historical information in this heavily researched novel that was based partly on Jefferson's own letters and co-written by a history professor. I hated history class when I was in school (why didn't they ever make it this interesting?), so I was captivated by so many of the facts included here that I kept interrupting my husband's reading to say, "Did you know...?" For instance, did you know that Jefferson and John Adams BOTH died on the Fourth of July in 1826, within hours of each other? Or that Jefferson was a redhead? This novel was a fascinating, gripping view into history, as well as an engaging look at one of the women behind the scenes of history whom we seldom hear about and an absorbing peek into daily life in the 18th and 19th centuries. I loved every page of it and was left wanting more.

580 pages, William Morrow

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I read this book in print, but the audio production sounds captivating. Listen to a sample here.

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  1. I love that you are so excited about this book. 600 pages sounds so daunting and I would have had the same attitude as you going in. How great that the book is wonderful.

    1. ha ha - glad you could tell how much I loved it!