**This review originally published on my old Blogger book blog on November 2012
Patriot Hearts is an ambitious bit of historical fiction blending the life stories of Martha Washington, Dolley Madison, Abigail Adams and Sally Hemmings. The book starts with Dolley Madison, alone at the White House (well, not totally alone, but away from President Madison). Knowing of the impending attack, she tries to collect the items left by past First Ladies, prefering to save the things "belonging to the country" than her own personal belongings. It's through these items from the former FLs that their stories are told.
The novel also includes a fictionalized idea of what Sally Hemmings might have been like as the lover & slave of Thomas Jefferson. Sally's part of the story has a tinge of sadness to it, but realistically I'm guessing the real life coupling between her and Jefferson was hardly as romantic as it's been made in movies and novels now.
To be honest, I wasn't blown away with this book. Hambly's talent for describing environments was there, you could tell she did her historical research, but the characters just didn't grip me the way they did in The Emancipator's Wife. The dialogue seemed more stiff here.
The depictions of Dolley Madison and Sally Hemings saved this book for me. I liked imagining Dolley's strength as a woman, particularly the part of the novel describing her holding her first husband, John Todd, Jr. as he dies, gruesomely, in her arms of yellow fever. She then ends up losing her son William the same night, also taken by the fever epidemic. John Todd was only 29 at the time of his death, leaving Dolley a widow at 25. Heartbreaking!
The stories of Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, by comparison, seemed to really drag. Martha felt like a cranky micromanager and Abigail just seemed like a busybody. And I know there was a good deal of political unrest going on at the time (but then, when is there not?) but man, it seemed like all the ladies were just always waiting for something bad to happen all the time. Even when things were going well, one of them was giving the "only a matter of time until this falls apart" attitude!
"This was the world Martha would have chosen, if offered every fairytale realm from Camelot to the Moon and the splendors of Egypt and Rome. Mt. Vernon in the quiet of winter, with the fields bare and the woods and lawn patched with snow. George riding out wrapped in his Army coat to survey the fields for next spring's plowing, his dapple gelding puffing smoke through its nostrils like a dragon. A world of mending and knitting, of black icy mornings rank with the smell of wood from the kitchen. Of the soft chatter of women in the weaving-room by candle-glow and firelight, of counting bulbs and seeds and planning next year's garden."
I did, however, like how the love between George and Martha in their private moments was depicted. Nice to think it wasn't just a marriage of convenience between them, as I've sometimes seen theorized.