Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival
Ambitious, well-educated, and beautiful, Kate Chase was called the “Belle of Washington” during the Civil War years. She sought to be the ultimate White House hostess by aiding her father, Ohio senator Salmon P. Chase, in his political ambitions to be President of the United States.
Therein lies the problem with this novel: the rivalry promised in the title is virtually shoved into the background, as too much space is given to the political and personal rivalries between Kate’s father and Abraham Lincoln – first for the presidency, and then throughout the administration of the Civil War. Mary Todd Lincoln, sharp-tongued and determined, makes only a few appearances in this lengthy book, mainly to bolster the premise that actual conflict existed between the two strong-minded women. Kate’s story picks up steam when the focus is on her relationship with Lincoln’s secretary John Hay, and becomes even more intriguing with her on-off romance with the Boy Governor of Rhode Island, William Sprague, whom she eventually married in a glamorous wartime wedding.
The author provides a realistic depiction of the nation’s capital during the war: sumptuous parties and receptions, overflowing boardinghouses and hotels, grimy streets, wounded soldiers and hordes of refugees, constant political infighting, and military blunders that extended the horrific conflict. But as a reader, I never found myself truly engaged in the story: at times it seemed unfocused and misdirected, and the characters mostly lackluster. Even Kate, who relates the events, does not fully come to life. Kate Chase Sprague led a life fascinating enough to fill several good novels; Chiaverini’s effort, disappointingly, is not one of them. While a valiant attempt to highlight a mostly forgotten historical figure, it somehow misses the mark nonetheless.