|[ Previous ] [ Next ]|
[Published by Bantam Books, New York, 1993]
I can't truly review this book, because I haven't read it in depth and don't plan to, but it requires a mention since Banastre Tarleton gets to be a somewhat significant villain in it despite having only a couple of mentions. (The usual. Slavering psycho in green. Research consisting of a quick skim through William Dobein James. Yawn.)
Janie drew this book to my attention a few months ago, and gave it a bad review. I was reminded of it again recently by another correspondent, who also gave it a massively negative review even though she did like the painting on the book cover. (To quote: "The first thing I thought after I'd wiped off my slobber and drool was, 'The artist forgot Jefferson's jaw.' The next thing I thought was, 'Hey, what's with the suntan? He was an ambassador in Paris, not Havana.' ")
Janie is (obviously) fond of Banastre Tarleton; my other correspondent is not -- but as you may be able to guess from her reaction to the cover, she is a big fan of Thomas Jefferson. So between them, they gave me the impression that this book doesn't make a very good read for anyone. Being of a curious temperament, I finally got around to checking it out for myself, albeit in a quick and shallow skim. I came away with the impression that they're right. The writing style is very stylish and elegant, and I found a few good scenes, but they tended to be the textural sequences, where Byrd is playing with images/descriptions. The characterization -- for me the most important element of any novel -- didn't impress me at all. Byrd spends most of the book placing Jefferson on a pedestal and denigrating everyone else -- not just Banastre, everyone. John and Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Maria Cosway fare little better.
Byrd conveniently overlooks the fact that Jefferson himself credited Tarleton with doing no damage to Monticello, in order to turn Ban into a kind of symbolic nemesis who haunts Jefferson right up to the point where they again almost meet in post-war Paris. (That thread would've interested me more if it had been carried through to a dramatic conclusion, but it was simply set up then dropped. Unless I was skimming through so fast that I missed a scene -- possible -- Ban gets three or four mentions, max, none of them on screen.)1
Again, I turn the forum over to my (by her choice anonymous) correspondent, who give the book a more thorough read:
"Your skim-through impressions are an accurate assessment of the entirety of the book. If you actually read the thing, you just get more of the same. Byrd has a few provocative observations on life. Examples...He implies that a root of the problems between Jefferson and Hamilton is that they both lost their fathers, and the root of both men's problems with Washington is that GW was a sonless father dealing with fatherless sons. He also claims the mournful tone of loss in the Declaration of Independence, the 'child sundering bonds from the parent,' is metaphor for Jefferson's own loss of his mother earlier that year. But those gems are buried beneath Byrd's dislike of everybody. He just cannot resist a cheap shot at anybody, and he doesn't balance the cheap shots with praise. If you trusted Byrd's work, you'd finish the book wondering if Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams weren't the biggest trio of idiots that ever walked the face of the earth in ambassador guise.
"The more I think about it, the more I realize what a lousy job Byrd did with the characterization of William Short, from whose eyes most of the action in the book was related. Short is an unforgiving character. He has nothing nice to say about just about anybody, vacillates between idolizing and recriminating Jefferson, and mopes around for years over a married woman who (duhhh...hello knucklehead) never does take up with him after her husband dies."
I saw nothing in my skim to cause me to disagree with that assessment. It seems to be a strange, dull, bitter book with lots of style. If you like wordsmithing as an art onto itself, you may not notice or be bothered by the strange/dull/bitterness of it. Certainly many people aren't; I understand it did very well with the critics.
|[ Index ]||[ Previous ] [ Next ]|
1 To quote Jefferson: "I did not suffer by him. On the contrary he behaved very genteely with me." (Jefferson to William Gordon, July 16, 1788). I'm still trying to dig up conclusive information on whether or not Tarleton and Jefferson actually met in Paris, but so far I can find no evidence that Byrd's decision to keep them separated is mandated by history. It is generally accepted that Ban's mistress, Mary Robinson, and Jefferson's lust object, Maria Cosway, became friends that year in Paris, and even started work on a book together, so it's hard to believe the two men managed never to be in the same room -- especially since Ban loved to chase down old enemies and make friends with them. [ back ]
|Return to the Main Page||Last updated by the Webmaster on January 2, 2011|