Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Founding Mother's Story

I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott



In order to avoid stating the obvious, I see no reason to start this review with a story synopsis. This is because I believe that even those with only a cursory knowledge of American history will have heard the name Alexander Hamilton, and immediately recognize that name as one of the country's "Founding Fathers." In fact, with the popularity of the musical "Hamilton," I'd be willing to bet that more people have heard that name than ever before. On the other hand, even people with good knowledge of late-18th and early-19th century American history may not know much about Elizabeth (aka Eliza) Hamilton, the wife of Alexander. With this novel, Scott decided to fill that gaping hole in our American historical education, and did so through this amazing woman's own eyes.


To begin with, I must say that Scott has done a truly admirable job of giving Eliza a strong, clear voice. Scott's prose is both concise and filled a gentle lyricism that shows what a deep admiration Scott obviously has for this remarkable woman. I was so impressed with the writing here, that I believe I read it almost as quickly as books half its length. Yes, this isn't a short book, but it is hardly an enormous tome, either (at about 400 pages). However, my mild dyslexia does slow my reading down, so longer books need to grab my interest. Still, no matter how interested I may be in the subject matter, if the writing doesn't charm me, it will take me longer to read that book, if I'm to keep reading at all. Thankfully, I was both excited to learn about Eliza and I thoroughly enjoyed Scott's enchanting writing style.

That said, as I've mentioned in other reviews, sometimes an enormous surplus of information about a specific personality can bog writers of historical fiction down. Unfortunately, Scott fell easily into this trap. On the one hand, I have to say that I now feel I know Alexander Hamilton quite well. This book carefully documents his friends and his foes; his achievements and his failures, and; his strengths and his weaknesses. I also feel that Scott was ultimately efficient in the accuracy of the history depicted here. At the same time, Scott also highlighted a few aspects of the unusual politics of the time, which allows the reader to draw parallels to things we are witnessing today in the American political arena.

All of that was fascinating, but… I think there was just a bit too much of Alexander for my taste. Yes, I know, it is practically impossible to extricate Eliza's life from what went on in Alexander's life, and yes, having Eliza narrate this story in first person did give his story a different viewpoint. The problem is that there were long passages here that detailed battles, both on the fields of war and in the rooms of governance that frankly, I found somewhat tedious. Furthermore, there were many instances where Scott repeated aspects of the relationship between Eliza and Alexander. For example, several times in the book Eliza recounts how she sat with Alexander while he wrote some important article or essay, thereby essentially acting as his secretary and collaborator. Detailing this once, or even twice, would have gotten the point across perfectly well; I really don't think we needed to hear about this collaboration on almost every piece of writing that Alexander ever published or worked on. Mind you, this did make the rare occasion when they didn't collaborate more dramatic, but still.

In addition, I get that these two were soul mates, who were deeply and passionately in love with each other, but I'm sure Scott could have cut out (or at least cut down on) some of these declarations. This is precisely what I believe what another reviewer meant when she said that she "felt there was too much "telling" and not enough "showing" which [she] felt made it more difficult to really connect with the characters." Finally, the fact that Scott ends this story not long after Alexander's death seemed somewhat unfair to Eliza. This was evident from the afterward, where Scott quickly summarizes all of the amazing things that Eliza did as the widow Hamilton for a full 50 years after his death! Imagine my surprise when I suddenly found myself wanting more, after I'd slogged through much of the second half of the book, and pushed myself to reach the end. That's the story I wanted to read, and regrettably, it isn't here. For all this, and because I still believe Scott is a very talented writer, I will give this novel three out of five stars (which is generous, as it might just deserve only two and a half). As for recommending it, well, if someone wants to learn more about Alexander Hamilton (through his wife's eyes), they might enjoy this book more than I did.



Kensington Publishing Corporation will release "I, Eliza Hamilton" by Susan Holloway Scott on September 27, 2017. This book is available (for pre-order) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (where your purchase supports literacy) as well as from an IndieBound store near you. 


I would like to thank the publishers for providing me with an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review.