At Saratoga Springs in 1906, the widowed Varina Howell Davis relates pieces of her life’s journey to visitor James Blake (aka “Jimmie Limber”), a black orphan she rescued in wartime Richmond. Teenaged Varina had few marriage prospects in Mississippi, so she chose to wed the much older Jefferson Davis as his second wife, expecting security and a stable plantation life. Upon her marriage and moving to The Hurricane, she discovered that she not only had to deal with the memory of Jeff’s beloved first wife, but also with contentious in-laws. Escaping from Mississippi as a freshman senator’s wife to Washington, the intelligent, witty Varina, whose opinions and attitudes did not always match her husband’s, was swept up in the political turmoil of the era. When the nation was torn apart and her husband became president of the Confederacy, their lives entered a dark and tumultuous period in America, and were forever altered.
I enjoyed the author’s portrayal of Varina as a strong, somewhat unconventional and complicated woman who recognizes that “being on the wrong side of history carries consequences.” However, I found his writing style disjointed and choppy, the novel more a series of vignettes than a continuously flowing narrative. The segment detailing her flight from Richmond to Florida I thought tedious and overlong, while major events in antebellum Washington or in the Confederate White House or her more personal relationships are given short shrift. His lyrically written but slow-moving passages paint a memorable picture of a grindingly devastated South at war’s end, although some sections, especially the Davises’ lives at Beauvoir and Varina’s life after Jeff’s death, seem a bit rushed. A gallant attempt to bring the shrouded Varina into sharper focus, but it felt uneven, untidy, and ultimately unsatisfying.