A new novel of the Civil War and its aftermath from the author of Cold Mountain (1997, etc.).
This novel begins in 1906 in upstate New York, where an elderly woman is staying at an establishment that is part hotel, part hospital. A visitor arrives, and his request for information about his own past takes readers back in time to another world. The visitor is a freed slave named James Blake. The woman is Varina Davis—who, as Jefferson Davis’ wife, was once the first lady of the Confederate States of America. As she moves back and forth in her own life story, V recalls scenes from her childhood in Natchez, Mississippi, and her marriage to a widower more than twice her age. After leaving home, she’s never settled for long. Her husband’s election to the Senate means a move to Washington, D.C., and his ascendancy to the leadership of the Confederacy takes her to Richmond. After the war, she takes cheap rooms in London. Varina is certainly a fascinating figure. She is well-educated, her own political sympathies do not align perfectly with those of her husband, and, after being impoverished by the war, she launches a career as a journalist in New York—writing being one of the only ways for a woman of her station to earn money. Readers who helped to make Frazier’s first novel a huge bestseller may cheer his return to the War Between the States. Whether or not his fourth book will earn the author new fans depends largely on whether or not there’s a fresh audience for his heavily lyrical—sometimes turgid—style. While there are moments of dry humor—Mrs. Davis is nobody’s fool—this reads more like a novel its heroine might have read in the late days of the 19th century than something written in the 21st. The most contemporary touch is the disjointed timeline, but even that isn’t entirely effective. The resulting text isn’t so much a coherent narrative as a series of vignettes.
Intriguing subject. Uneven execution.