Two Julias, one born into prosperity, the other into slavery, witness the rise of the Civil War and the beginnings of Reconstruction.
Chiaverini (Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, 2014, etc.) continues her series of domestic novels detailing the lives of women orbiting President Abraham Lincoln's political sphere. Spymistress Elizabeth Van Lew and dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, from the author's earlier novels, make cameo appearances. We begin in antebellum Missouri, where Julia Dent, beautiful yet cursed with poor eyesight, grows up with another, enslaved Julia. She relies on her slave to see for her when her eyes tire, yet the dear friends have only the dimmest awareness that their master-slave relationship will cause trouble. The first sign of colliding interests is, of course, their name: Only one person can have the name "Julia" on the plantation, and that privilege goes to the master’s daughter, who renames her bosom companion Jule. Their stories diverge as Julia becomes besotted with then-Lt. Ulysses S. Grant and Jule pines for Gabriel, part-time minister and enslaved stable boy. Julia’s is a love story, filled with anxiety for her beloved Grant, whose military expertise and unassailable honor ensure not only his eventual presidency, but also Julia’s unshakeable devotion. A woman from a slaveholding household married to a champion of the Union and of abolition, Julia struggles—for so long that it strains credulity—to square her upbringing with the increasingly obvious problems with slavery; even Jule has difficulty making Julia see the value of freedom. Able to read, a gifted hairdresser and determined to make her own mark on society, Jule is an intriguing character. Unfortunately, Julia’s tale eclipses Jule’s at every turn.
Chiaverini’s fans will love this light historical romance, but readers hoping for a fully imagined slave-to-freedwoman's journey will be disappointed.