Published by William Morrow on June 27, 2017
Source: the publisher
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From the critically acclaimed author of The Widow's War comes a captivating work of literary historical fiction that explores the tenuous relationship between a brilliant and complex father and his devoted daughter—Thomas Jefferson and Martha Jefferson Randolph.
After the death of her beloved mother, Martha Jefferson spent five years abroad with her father, Thomas Jefferson, on his first diplomatic mission to France. Now, at seventeen, Jefferson’s bright, handsome eldest daughter is returning to the lush hills of the family’s beloved Virginia plantation, Monticello. While the large, beautiful estate is the same as she remembers, Martha has changed. The young girl that sailed to Europe is now a woman with a heart made heavy by a first love gone wrong.
The world around her has also become far more complicated than it once seemed. The doting father she idolized since childhood has begun to pull away. Moving back into political life, he has become distracted by the tumultuous fight for power and troubling new attachments. The home she adores depends on slavery, a practice Martha abhors. But Monticello is burdened by debt, and it cannot survive without the labor of her family’s slaves. The exotic distant cousin she is drawn to has a taste for dangerous passions, dark desires that will eventually compromise her own.
As her life becomes constrained by the demands of marriage, motherhood, politics, scandal, and her family’s increasing impoverishment, Martha yearns to find her way back to the gentle beauty and quiet happiness of the world she once knew at the top of her father’s “little mountain.”
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
I thought I would be able to breeze through Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning since I know a little bit about this part of history and because I love historical fiction so much, but I really had to take my time with this one. It’s so layered and detailed. But I love books like this one and I’m fascinated with Martha Jefferson Randolph’s relationship with her father, Thomas Jefferson. She was close to her father. After the death of her mother and then later, after his retirement, Martha looked after him so he wouldn’t require a second wife or a housekeeper. She was able to manage this even as she was a busy married woman with eleven children of her own.
It isn’t Martha’s regular life that interested me most – her marriage, her children. I find Martha fascinating because she spoke publicly, or at least not entirely privately, about her disagreement with slavery. She was disappointed in her father for not working harder on the slavery issue while in public office. I’m fascinated that Martha could be so against slavery for her entire life, and yet also own slaves throughout her life. Martha had conflicted feelings about this issue and seemed to constantly feel guilt about owning slaves. Her thought processes and conversations with others regarding slavery were the parts of the book that I found myself rereading and pondering.
Another part of the story that I find fascinating is Martha’s feelings about Sally Hemings. In this book, Martha seems quite resentful of Sally. She almost seems jealous of her, and also of her children. The relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally seemed fairly obvious to me, and yet somehow Martha never fully grasped the reality of the situation. She apparently never felt comfortable talking to her father outright about it, but wondered about it almost constantly and discussed it with her husband often when they were together. Also, for such a long-term arrangement (or relationship, or whatever it was) between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Mr. Jefferson never shared what was going on with his family. The entire situation is just unusual to me – that there were so many people “in the know” and no one acknowledged or questioned anything for decades. And now, in the current day, all we can really do is speculate and try to figure out the truth from things like letters and diary entries.
I enjoyed Monticello. I haven’t read anything from Sally Cabot Gunning before, but it is clear to me that she has an interest for history that is like my own, which is why I felt like I needed to take more time with this book than I initially thought. It required a certain care, I think, because care was given to it when it was being written. I would have loved to read some of Sally’s perspective in here, and even Mr. Jefferson’s perspective. I think those would have made the story a little bit more full-bodied.
I think people that are interested in this particular part of history will enjoy Monticello and readers that have read America’s First Daughter can still read this one and find different things to enjoy. Both are very good. Both approach Martha Jefferson Randolph and her relationship with her father from different angles.
ABOUT SALLY CABOT GUNNING
A lifelong resident of New England, Sally Cabot Gunning has immersed herself in its history from a young age. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Satucket Novels—The Widow’s War, Bound, and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke—and, writing as Sally Cabot, the equally acclaimed Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard. She lives in Brewster, Massachusetts, with her husband, Tom.