Varina: A Novel
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Signed by Charles Frazier.
Amazon Editorial Review
Sooner or later, history asks, which side were you on?
In his powerful new novel, Charles Frazier returns to the time and place of Cold Mountain, vividly bringing to life the chaos and devastation of the Civil War
Her marriage prospects limited, teenage Varina Howell agrees to wed the much-older widower Jefferson Davis, with whom she expects the secure life of a Mississippi landowner. Davis instead pursues a career in politics and is eventually appointed president of the Confederacy, placing Varina at the white-hot center of one of the darkest moments in American history—culpable regardless of her intentions.
The Confederacy falling, her marriage in tatters, and the country divided, Varina and her children escape Richmond and travel south on their own, now fugitives with “bounties on their heads, an entire nation in pursuit.”
Intimate in its detailed observations of one woman’s tragic life and epic in its scope and power, Varina is a novel of an American war and its aftermath. Ultimately, the book is a portrait of a woman who comes to realize that complicity carries consequences.
Charles Frazier is a slow storyteller. He likes to build his world, layer after layer, until it's rich and complex. This is great for a character study like Varina, where her personality is slowly built up and the reader comes to understand exactly how she became the woman she is at the end of her life.
But if I'm being honest, it really kills the tension in the high stakes moments. There's no urgency in the Davis family's flight to Florida, even as the Confederacy falls around them.
One of the things I liked in the book was the exploration of owner-slave relationships. Varina, or V as she is usually called in the book, witnesses Jefferson Davis' close relationship to his slave Pemberton, noting at times they almost seem like family, but never able to erase that final line between them. Later, she admits that she thought of one of her former slaves as a friend, and is hurt that the slave doesn't reciprocate. James finds it interesting that she can perceive the disconnect in her husband's life but not in her own. He also asks her multiple times if she adopted him, a black boy, as a "pet", and she never really answers that to his satisfaction because I think she doesn't really know.
You also see slaves who stay with their masters because they have nowhere else to go, or because they nursed their masters as babies and just can't leave them to fend for themselves.
I appreciated the chance to learn more about the wife of Jefferson Davis. She was an interesting women, often progressive in her thoughts, and educated. She was often a tragic figure, with a marriage that seemed loveless, children who died too young and too often, and trapped in the shadow of her husband and his role as a failed revolutionary. One can't help but wonder what she would have been like if married to another man, or born at a different time when she could have used more of her gifts in a public role.
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