Genre: historical fiction
Length: 624 pages
Setting: Virginia and Paris, 1781-1828
Interest: I received a review copy of this book, but my opinion is completely my own. I agreed to the review because I do enjoy historical fiction books.
Summary: We follow the life of Thomas Jefferson from just after declaring independence from Britain until his death in 1828, as told from the viewpoint of his daughter, Martha (nicknamed Patsy). Jefferson’s wife dies when Patsy was only eight, devastating him. It was Patsy who brought him back from the brink of suicide, charged by her dying mother to always be there for her father. Jefferson was sent to Paris to promote American interests among the French. He (and therefore Patsy) get involved with the French Revolution and its leaders. Patsy comes of age in Paris, falling in love with Jefferson’s assistant, William Short. Eventually, Polly, Patsy’s younger sister, joins them in Paris, along with her black maid, Sally, who was technically Mrs. Jefferson’s half-sister. While Jefferson promised to never take another wife, he does get involved with Sally, and she eventually bears him several children. Jefferson goes back to the United States before the French Revolution gets too bloody. Although he would say he just wanted to retire to Monticello, he would invariably be called to public service. Martha gets married to a plantation-owning cousin, Mr. Randolph, and started popping out babies. Their lives are made difficult when Mr. Randolph is disinherited. It doesn’t help their married life that Martha usually prioritizes helping her father over helping her husband.
Final thoughts: This was a really interesting book. It is reading books like this one that I realize how little I actually know about so many time periods. I know the basics of the American Revolution, but this was set just after the American Revolution, and I certainly know less about that time period. There was a lot of work being done to establish the United States as a viable government, and Jefferson, and therefore his daughter, was involved in much of that work.
The book also tackles some tough issues in a nuanced manner, like slavery, honor and owning land (and therefore slaves), the role of women, the choice of babies or a black concubine. It’s easy to say which side of the issues you would be on, but it was much more difficult when you were living through those choices. The author’s did a great job of showing the conflict between the choices.
If Patsy had been male, she would have followed her father into statecraft. As it was, she had to do her politicking in the dining rooms and at balls. I know she was pretty ruthless in maintaining her father’s image for posterity, but I admired what she did. She never quite got what she wanted (there’s a whole side story of the relationship between her and William Short), but she made the most of what she had.
Title comes from: It was a title given to her while Jefferson was President. Since he was a widower, Martha acted as his hostess at any presidential event, and people called her the First Daughter.
Reading challenges fulfilled: a D in my author Reading the Alphabet Challenge, #13 in my Maybe 100 This Year Challenge, and my first book published in 2016 for my New Books Challenge – a trifecta of challenges!
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