Saturday, November 30, 2013

Mrs. Lincoln's Rival by Jennifer Chiaverini

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 26, 2013

Kate Chase Sprague was born in 1840 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the second daughter to the second wife of a devout but ambitious lawyer. Her father, Salmon P. Chase, rose to prominence in the antebellum years and was appointed secretary of the treasury in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, while aspiring to even greater heights. Beautiful, intelligent, regal, and entrancing, young Kate Chase stepped into the role of establishing her thrice-widowed father in Washington society and as a future presidential candidate. Her efforts were successful enough that The Washington Star declared her the most brilliant woman of her day. None outshone her.” None, that is, but Mary Todd Lincoln. Though Mrs. Lincoln and her young rival held much in common—political acumen, love of country, and a resolute determination to help the men they loved achieve greatness—they could never be friends, for the success of one could come only at the expense of the other. When Kate Chase married William Sprague, the wealthy young governor of Rhode Island, it was widely regarded as the pinnacle of Washington society weddings. President Lincoln was in attendance. The First Lady was not. Jennifer Chiaverini excels at chronicling the lives of extraordinary yet little known women through historical fiction. What she did for Elizabeth Keckley in Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker and for Elizabeth Van Lew in The Spymistress she does for Kate Chase Sprague in Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival.

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Kate Chase Sprague
I've come to the conclusion that I must approach Jennifer Chiaverini's work with certain degree of caution. She isn't a bad writer, she actually has a great command of language and prose, but I find her brand of storytelling less than satisfying. 

My biggest concern is her tenancy to substitute fact based exposition in place of original content. This reliance makes her narratives interesting, but relatively dry and noteworthy for their lack of depth and momentum. To put it simply, one might as well read a nonfictional biography. To my mind, historical fiction is about combining fact with imagination and I don't think Chiaverini excels in creating an appropriate balance between the two. 

To make matters worse, I don't feel Mrs. Lincoln's Rival has a realistic central theme. Kate and Mary spend very little time in one another's company and short of a few jealous and belittling thoughts and remarks from Kate, the tension seems largely one-sided and grossly exaggerated. 

The blurb itself actually offers a great example of this sensationalism as it draws attention to Mrs. Lincoln's absence from Sprague wedding on November 12, 1863. Billed as the social event of the season, one might easily think this a deliberate slight, but the incident strikes a much more somber tone when one examines why the socially awkward first lady might have shunned an unnecessary public celebration. 

Mary Todd Lincoln
Following the tragic passing of her eleven year old son William on February 20, 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln entered a state of mourning. Victorian etiquette regarding death is far too complicated to explain here, but it dictated everything from the clothing one might wear to the functions they might attend. Duration was dependent on one's relationship to the deceased, but according to The Lincoln Institute, Mary Todd continued to exhibit her grief long after the customary period of observance and did not shed her mourning attire until early 1865. 

I understand the appeal of a social rivalry, purported cat fights have been selling magazines and newspapers for generations, but the idea isn't quite as provocative when one of the so called-combatants is a grieving mother. Call me crazy, but perspective actually makes the idea shallow, disgraceful and I'll say it, rather ridiculous.

I think I've made it pretty clear that I struggled with both the style and content of this book and while I've granted it three stars, know my rating is a generous one, based on the historic scope of the novel rather than genuine appreciation for the narrative. 

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Those who had overheard the exchange might conclude that Kate had innocently misspoken, that because of her youth and inexperience she was unaware of the custom that decreed that the First Lady did not call on others. Mrs. Lincoln was first in Washington society by virtue of her husband’s exalted position, and so, as an inviolable rule, others came to her. But it had been no girlish mistake. Kate understood precedent perfectly well, and she knew that by assuming that Mrs. Lincoln would call upon her like any other lady of Washington society might, she was claiming a higher rank than the First Lady. Kate knew it, and Mrs. Lincoln knew it too.
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1 comment:

Elizabeth Bell said...

"My biggest concern is her tenancy to substitute fact based exposition in place of original content. ... one might as well read a nonfictional biography."

Yes, yes, yes! I agree completely. I remember discovering with great dismay that Chiaverini actually lifted whole sections of Elizabeth Keckley's autobiography for her novel Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker. Keckley's work may be out of copyright, but I think such unacknowledged plagiarism is horrific.

However, I did enjoy Chiaverini's The Lost Quilter. Here's a link to my review: