Chiaverini (Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, 2013, etc.) examines Civil War politics and battles, this time through the eyes of Washington hostess Kate Chase Sprague.
Readers expecting a tug of war for social dominance between Mary Todd Lincoln and the daughter of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase may be disappointed to discover the moments of contention are few and far between. Kate serves as her father’s closest confidante and hostess as he pursues the presidency and settles for a Cabinet position, which Kate believes will help Chase one day achieve his goal and establish her as the first lady of Washington society. Furnishing a home for her thrice-widowed father, younger sister Nettie and herself, Kate serves him well, but the “Belle of Washington” is spurned by Mrs. Lincoln both for an inadvertent slight and because she’s the daughter of Lincoln’s political rival. Apparently, the so-called rivalry’s not such a big deal since it's rarely addressed, but Kate’s personal story, which should be at the heart of the novel, also receives short shrift. Her on-again, off-again relationship with Rhode Island governor William Sprague, a rich man with vices; her endearing friendship with John Hay, the president’s assistant secretary, who falls in love with Kate and fills her in on all the White House gossip; her interactions with her sister, her in-laws and her father—all the aspects of Kate’s life that hold potential fascination for the reader—are pushed into the background amid dull, heavily detailed paragraphs about historical events, political machinations and prominent names.
Although Kate provides endless commentary, Chiaverini never seizes the opportunity to fully develop her main or secondary characters into engaging, well-rounded individuals. Even Abraham Lincoln comes off as flat.