This book was primarily upsetting, quite frankly. It was very well written and engaging, and I loved (in some ways) the fact that it was as historically accurate as a “novel” could be, drawn from Patsy Jefferson’s correspondences and those letters she curated of her father’s. But my big takeaway was that being a woman back then *sucked.* I mean, to some degree I knew that, but this really drove it home. Patsy’s husband Tom is an abusive insecure asshole who eventually goes mad from bitterness and anger–and she makes excuses for him, for most of her life. Her son-in-law is even worse, literally beating her very pregnant daughter to the point where she and the baby both die. But because of the world they live in, they’re taught to submit–the law is on their husbands’ side, no matter what he does. There’s no accountability at all. I’m having nightmares about it.
Also, everybody dies young, of what are now totally preventable causes! Childbirth killed Patsy’s mother, her sister, and then the daughter (who died of a combo of injuries from her abusive husband and from the birth). And creditors are after everybody–I didn’t realize that Thomas Jefferson died virtually penniless, mostly because he kept attempting to bail out his good-for-nothing sons-in-law. He was against slavery for the most part, but because the system was what it was, he couldn’t free them without jeopardizing his entire family. Before reading this, I blamed him for holding slaves, and especially for taking Sally, one of his slaves, as a mistress–so much worse when I learned that Sally was his late wife’s half-sister! But he truly loved her, and she him. They had children together, and for a variety of complicated political reasons he had to be covert about setting her and her children free.
And one more heartbreak: Patsy married the wrong man. She chose to stay with her father and follow his advice, rather than marry the man she loved: Jefferson had thought that William Short would never have enough money to support a family, because he was against slavery and refused to earn money as a plantation owner. He chose to be a diplomat instead, a heretofore unheard of career. But of all the ironies, William became wealthy, and Tom made terrible choices, ending not just in poverty but in outrageous debt. William comes back at multiple key moments in Patsy’s life, still single and still in love with her… but the world being what it was, she couldn’t just leave Tom and right the wrong. Tom even exacted a promise from her that she would never marry another if he died, so even after he was gone she couldn’t marry William. She was true to her word, which I respect–but it was a promise she never should have given in the first place. I know that’s the MO of an abuser: he’s kind just often enough to get the abused woman to soften to him. It was totally believable. But so upsetting.
There was some politics, too, but not as much as you might think. The story wasn’t a page-turner per se, but it was engaging. If you like happy stories, though, this probably isn’t for you.
My rating: ****