Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Book Review: "Monticello: A Daughter and Her Father" by Sally Cabot Gunning #Monticello #TLCBooktours

Monticello: A Daughter and Her Father Sally Cabot Gunning
Date finished: June 20, 2017
Date published: September 6, 2016
ISBN: 9780062320452
Genre: Historical Fiction (post-Revolutionary US)
Source: TLC Book Tours and HarperCollins
Highly Recommended

You might enjoy this book if you like: Novels about the "women behind history," stories about the Founding Fathers, female-centric books

After the early death of her mother, young Martha Jefferson accompanied her father, Thomas Jefferson, on his first diplomatic mission to Paris. Five years later, father and daughter have come home to Monticello, the family’s beloved plantation set high in the lush hills of the Virginia countryside. 

Though Monticello has suffered from her father’s absence, Martha finds it essentially unchanged, even as she has been transformed. The sheltered girl that sailed to Europe is now a handsome seventeen-year-old woman with a battle-scarred heart, who sees a world far more complicated than it once seemed. 

Blessed with her father’s sharp mind and independent spirit, Martha has long abhorred slavery and yearned for its swift end. Yet she now discovers that the home she adores is burdened by growing debt and cannot survive long without the labor of its slaves. Her bonds with those around her are shifting, too. As the doting father she has idolized since childhood returns to government, he becomes increasingly distracted by tumultuous fights for power and troubling attachments that pull him further away. And as Martha begins to pay closer attention to Sally Hemings—the beautiful light-skinned slave long acknowledged to be her mother’s half-sister—she realizes that the slave’s position in the household has subtly changed. Eager for distraction, Martha welcomes the attentions of Thomas Randolph, her exotic distant cousin, but soon Martha uncovers burdens and desires in him that threaten to compromise her own.

As her life becomes constrained by the demands of marriage, motherhood, politics, scandal, and her family’s increasing impoverishment, Martha yearns to find her way back to her childhood home; to the gentle beauty and quiet happiness of the world she once knew at the top of her father’s “little mountain.”

My Thoughts:
This is only the 3rd of Gunning's novels that I've read, but she has become one my favorite Historical fiction authors.  She seamlessly weaves historical fact in her novels without sounding the least bit didactic and her characters, even the ones readers think they already know, leap to life on the pages.

Monticello is slightly different from the other Gunning books that I've read (Bound and Benjamin Franklin's Bastard) for two reasons.  First of all it is essentially a Southern novels, whereas Gunning's other novels are set in Philadelphia or on Long Island.  This may not seem like much of a distinction--unless you've lived in the South.  I spent 4 years in Virginia and I have a deep love for the state and the residents, but it is quite different from "the North" (and the Pacific Northwest).  When I first heard of this title, I was a little apprehensive because I wasn't sure that Gunning would be able write what is essentially a Southern novel, but my worries were unfounded.  Gunning is able to capture Virginia in all its beauty and all its flaws.  The place of Monticello is almost its own character and, if you can't afford a trip to Charlottesville, this book is a somewhat close second to being there.

The second way that I found this book to be different is that it is much more character driven.  Much of the story is Martha's view of the world, which could very easily have fallen flat.  I've read too many such books where staying in the head of the characters just become overly tied up in itself.  Gunning is able to escape this trap by not letting Martha wax on too much and having her to take action on her thoughts.  Martha struggles with more than a few things--her aversion to slavery, the situation with Sally Hemmings, her alcoholic husband among these--on her mind, but she also takes action on her thoughts around them.  So, while this is a character-driven novel, the character is a very a strong driver.

I did want to mention the Sally Hemmings aspect.  I've always had a bit of a problem with depictions of the Sally Hemmings/Thomas Jefferson relationship in entertainment.  It is usually told as a love story and I just can't buy that.  There is a "right" answer to what their relationship was, but no one alive really knows that, so authors and filmmakers and whoever are left to speculated.  I get that it could have been that they had a deep loving relationship, but I just don't think it is likely.  I don't see how a slave would ever be in a position to give true consent to a relationship with his or her master.  Yes, I understand that whatever it was began while they were in France and Hemmings was free while there, but Jefferson was still her master and, ultimately, she "chose" slavery.

I bring this up because this was one other thing that I was nervous about when I started this book.  Ultimately, I think that Gunning handled it well.  Martha has some clear animosity towards Sally, which makes sense.  I mean, I can't think of any woman who would have warm fuzzies about their father taking up with a woman her age.  But Martha also has some strong views about slavery and Sally embodies much of the contradictions that Martha is working through.  I found her reaction to Sally to be very realistic.

I don't normally comment on what authors put in the "Author's Note", but I will here.  Gunning addresses the Sally Hemmings issue and, while she comes out more on the romantic side than I would have, I do appreciate that she took the time to think through the problems with Sally Hemmings' relationships with both Thomas Jefferson and Martha Randolph.  If someone were looking for a book that explores Sally Hemmings and the Jeffersons, this is definitely one that I would recommend.

This book was one that I was not able to put down (and the fact that I ended up reading it over Father's Day was an extra bonus) and am so glad that I read.  I highly recommend this to anyone, but especially to those who love Historical Fiction as it is among the best.

About the Author:
A lifelong resident of New England, Sally Cabot Gunning has immersed herself in its history from a young age. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Satucket Novels—The Widow’s War, Bound, and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke—and, writing as Sally Cabot, the equally acclaimed Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard. She lives in Brewster, Massachusetts, with her husband, Tom.

Find out more about Sally at her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

I received a copy of this book in return for an honest review.  I received no other compensation for this post.

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