Patriot Hearts: A Novel of the Founding Mothers
Patriot Hearts tells the stories of four women: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Sally Hemings, and Dolley Madison. It opens in 1814, with Dolley Madison getting ready to escape from an about-to-be-burned President’s House and cuts back and forth in time and between the four central characters, who are linked to each other in a number of ways.
Hambly’s characterizations are vivid, and she writes exceptionally well, with a wry sense of humor that made me chuckle aloud at times. She’s obviously done her research, and she handles the delicate issue of slavery deftly and sensitively.
Nonetheless, I found this book to be somewhat frustrating, for several reasons. The constant leaping back and forth between characters and times, while certainly an authorial tour de force, made it difficult for me to maintain my focus and to keep my interest. Also problematic is the swarm of minor characters. Sometimes, as with Sally Hemings’ family, they play a useful role, both in the plot and thematically, but in other cases, they served only to bog the reader down in minutiae. Martha Washington in particular was lost to me, at least in the early chapters, amid an ever-shifting panorama of friends and relations, many of whom make only one appearance, and only as part of the landscape. Finally, Hambly’s stylistic choice to make all four women central characters, while it did have the advantage of showing their interconnections and their shared struggles, ultimately prevented her from developing each of their individual stories as much as I would have liked.
Despite these reservations, Hambly vividly brings these four very different women to life. For illuminating a side of the presidency that often gets neglected by textbooks—the domestic—she is to be commended.