Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Book Review: The Spymistress

Title: The Spymistress
Author: Jennifer Chiaverini
Publisher: Dutton Adult
Publication Date: October 1st, 2013
Read: March 2014
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Historical-fiction-based-on-a-true-story
Rating: 2.75 Secret Messages Hidden in Eggs

The Quick and Dirty:

After her home state of Virginia secedes from the Union and joins the Confederacy, aristocratic Richmondite Elizabeth Van Lew is torn between her love for her home and her love for the United States. She puts herself in danger by hiding her Unionist sentiments and remaining in the capital of the Confederacy, and this unique position allows her to aid Union prisoners of war, form a network of spies, and smuggle information to the Union forces throughout the course of the Civil War. The story perspective of Southern Unionists who remained living amongst their largely Confederate neighbors is a compelling one, but flat characters and a strange sort of detachment in the writing made it difficult for me to connect with the characters or really get a sense of the horrors of the War Between the States. There was something that kept me turning the pages, especially as the end of the war drew near, but overall I was a bit disappointed with the treatment of the material.

The Wordy Version:

As I was perusing NetGalley one day, I was immediately drawn to this book by the gorgeous cover. Just look at it! Pensive woman in a pretty purple Civil War-era dress holding what appears to be some sort of code, with old-time-y looking fonts, parchment, and flourish-y things. Lovely. Reading the plot blurb about the exciting-sounding escapades of a genteel Southern lady spymistress for the Union (based on a true story!) sealed the deal. However, while it did indeed have some exciting moments, overall I didn’t love it, and I’m not sure it completely does justice to the real Elizabeth Van Lew who inspired it.

But let’s start with the positive. One of the things I found to be extremely compelling about this book was its subject matter of people living in the South who did not agree with secession or slavery, and during the war were forced to either hide their true loyalties or leave their homes to live in the North. It was an idea I’d never really stopped to consider before. In pop culture/media/schooling, I think it’s easy to reduce the conflict of the Civil War to simply “South = All Bad, North = All Good,” and the stories of the people who didn’t really fit into that dichotomy get somewhat lost in the middle. It hadn’t really occurred to me that there were people in the South who were harassed and persecuted for not supporting, and actually working against, the cause of the Confederacy, and so I found it very interesting to read of the bravery, dedication, and sheer boldness of this woman of the upper echelons of Richmond society, her family, other townsmen, slaves, and freedmen all secretly working for the cause of the Union in the Confederate capital.

Unfortunately, though, I found the characters populating this world to be rather two-dimensional. I never really got a sense of them beyond what was on the surface to see them as real people, as individuals with distinct personalities and lives. Certainly there were a lot of them, but they were often so indistinct that when a character would pop up again after not being mentioned for a few chapters, I would struggle to remember who precisely they were/what had happened to them/what role they played. Even the characterization of our protagonist, Elizabeth Van Lew, left something to be desired. From her character, I got that she adores her family (especially her nieces), loves the United States, hates her sister-in-law, and has the conviction and bravery to work in support of the Union and against slavery. And that’s all good, solid character stuff. What I struggled with, though, is that while she’s in her early 40s, she is often portrayed in a way that makes her seem much younger, with regards to maturity level. It’s not that I think a woman in her 40s can’t be sassy, headstrong, and full of cutting retorts—it’s rather that I think Lizzie shows an impulsiveness and sometimes recklessness that I would not generally associate with a) someone who has had her years of life experience, and more importantly, b) someone running a Union spy ring in the South. Certainly a lot of gumption and a willingness to take risk are necessary for someone in that position, but surely a lot of prudence and caution are involved, too. Also, as Lizzie is a self-dubbed spinster whose betrothed died of fever before they could be married, I thought it was strange that this man whose death had such an effect on her life only came up two or three times in the narrative (I can’t even remember if we were told his name).

Another thing that kept me from enjoying the book as much as I’d hoped was a sort of detachment in the writing. I’ve already addressed it a bit in my difficulty to connect with underdeveloped characters, but it also showed up in the overall plot and writing. I feel weird using the word “detached” to describe it because there are plenty of descriptions of the horrors of the POW camps and prisons in Richmond, and of Lizzie and her friends frequently courting danger, but the writing never really made me feel it. My heart never raced when Lizzie went up against some new Confederate official as she used the convenient justification of Christian charity to get permission to bring food to the Union prisoners. I never truly worried for her safety when she contrived to help prisoners escape and take refuge in her home before sending them north. Even as the battles came closer to Richmond and her neighbors’ suspicions of her grew, I never felt the danger that I knew was there for her.

Same with the war overall. Lizzie was never on the battlefields and thus it wasn’t possible to portray that part of the war in the book, but we did see the results of those battles as prisoners and wounded Confederate soldiers poured into the city in the aftermath. That should be horrifying in its own right, and there are many descriptions of the mistreated prisoners, wounded soldiers, and the starvation that preyed upon everyone in Richmond, but I simply never got a full sense of the horrors of the war. I think it might come down to a problem of telling vs. showing in the writing. There were also some story flow things that irked me, such as a retroactive mention of a Texas colonel dining at the Van Lew mansion (why weren’t we told about it when it actually happened instead of just having it come up in conversation a week afterwards?), and the death of Lizzie’s despised sister-in-law being mentioned only in passing near the end of the book (don’t we get to find out what happened to that crazypants??). I understand that every single thing that happens in these characters lives during the course of the war can’t be included in the book since that would result in a doorstopper-sized volume, but at the same time I think time flow and the gaps between events could’ve been smoother.

On another positive note, though I never really felt deeply affected by the descriptions of the war, I appreciated that the story makes an effort to humanize people on both sides of it. It is always clear that the Confederacy is in the wrong, but the writing just as clearly demonstrates that suffering was felt on both sides of the conflict. I also thought the story gave a really good sense of how slow and unreliable the dissemination of news was during that time. For us, living in the age of internet, smartphones, and instant gratification, it’s eye-opening to think about a time when a battle could be happening in the next town over and you might not know what happened or the outcome until the next day’s newspapers came out (at the earliest!). Misinformation and rumor also played a role in the spread of news during that era, and it provides insight to the time period and the social climate to read about how the main characters and the city are affected by a rumor about a Union general coming up the river to capture Richmond never coming to fruition or by outright lies about which side had won battles in other parts of the South.

Though I had problems with the character development and some characteristics of the writing style, there were aspects of this book that I found fascinating, and there were even parts of it where I got so caught up in the flow of events that I was able to forget about my criticisms and enjoy the reading experience. It was also fun (though it feels wrong to use that word) to see names of historical figures and battles that I recognized pop up in the story, and my reading was enriched by the colorized photos of some of these people and battles found in the wonderful The Civil War in Color, a photo book that I was paging through at the same time. Overall, though, this book was not as much as I had hoped it would be. Slow to start but improving as the pace picked up, The Spymistress was at times enjoyable to read in spite of its flaws, but not to the extent that I would purchase or re-read it.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.


Susan said...

Your point about the characterization of Lizzie is really interesting. I agree entirely that I wouldn't expect rash behavior in a 40-something-year-old spy ringleader, although the more I think about it (out of a lingering fear that I am committing some age discrimination in my easy agreement), the more I wonder if a spy leader would have to be reckless in the first place. I mean, being a spy is risky in the first place. I am still thinking, but I think the book as a whole is not landing on my to-read list.

Alyssa L. said...

Those were both things that I considered as well. I felt like I was being vaguely age-ist as I was thinking about how Lizzie didn't seem to fit my mental image of what a 40-year-old woman would act like, because certainly any person at any age can be rash--that's not solely the domain of the younger generations. But at the same time, there's the sort of recklessness like, say, a three-year-old touching a hot stove top--when a person is 3, that's understandable, but if someone older than that did it you'd be like, "Um, that was dumb." Lizzie didn't do anything quite like that, but the more I thought about it the more some of her choices seemed nearly adolescent, not-a-lot-of-life-experience in their headstrong-iness. I've read characters who are very immature adults (Lizzie's sister-in-law, for one), but I don't think Lizzie is supposed to be immature in those ways, so that's why I think it comes down to simply some wonk or unevenness in characterization. As I noted, a willingness to take risk is certainly essential in a spymaster, but I think there's a difference between risk taking after a little cost-benefit analysis and pure recklessness. For a successful spymistress I would expect more of the former than the latter, though probably both would be involved. Many times Lizzie did take risks after careful thought, but there were definitely some decisions that made me go, "Wha??" since they seemed to involve high risk with next to no real benefit. Inviting your spy ring to your home on a day of Confederate fasting to have a feast? Yes, that would certainly help morale for your Unionist group, but even if you make sure to draw the blinds that seems like a huge risk to take just to give the Confederacy the proverbial middle finger, especially when you're already under suspicion. If you were caught, there go all of President Lincoln's sources of information and aid from inside the Confederate capital in one fell swoop! But who knows, maybe that was something that was actually taken from the historical record? Hard to say what people will do in wartime. And maybe I'm just an overly cautious person. :)

Alyssa L. said...

Also, I don't know why Disqus isn't letting me do page breaks.

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