The novel can be summed up by using its full title: The Traitor’s Wife: The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold and the Plan to Betray America. The primary focus is on Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia debutante who ensnares Benedict Arnold and convinces him to defect to the British Army during the Revolutionary War. The tale is told through the eyes of Clara Bell, Peggy’s personal maid.
This debut novel from writer Alison Pataki follows the growing trend of telling the stories of great historical figures through the eyes of women. Half the historical fiction novels lately seem to be the “somethings wife” or the “somethings daughter”. Here, at least, we are drawn to the woman behind the curtain. This novel attempts to pinpoint the lion’s share of the blame for Arnold’s defection onto Peggy Shippen. She is depicted as a kind of colonial Lady MacBeth, twisting the mind of her previously good and decent husband until he takes action against the country that he supposedly loves.
“If you can’t break the rules, you might as well seduce the man who makes them”
Peggy Shippen is portrayed throughout this novel as a spoiled, selfish brat who doesn’t care about anyone in the world except herself. She manipulates the hearts and minds of the men around her to get her way and seems almost sociopathic in her lack of sympathy for her fellow man. The only problem is that she is utterly two-dimensional. At least with Lady MacBeth we felt her desire for power and her hunger to place MacBeth on the throne of Scotland. Peggy Shippen is given no more motivation for the overthrow of the Revolutionary War than wanting a large house and pretty gowns to wear. She is unsympathetic in every aspect, therefore we as readers don’t particularly care about her. Had Pataki instilled Peggy with even the barest shred of humanity, we might have felt more of a pang when her carefully constructed plans fall about her ears. As it is, I was just happy the novel was nearly over. Benedict Arnold is given a similar lobotomy, depicted here as a weak, vain, and rather vapid man who is too easily besotted by a pretty smile. I expected more from a man whose very name has become synonymous with treason and betrayal.
This book could have done with a more careful editor. At times I wondered if it was self-published due to the blatant errors that kept popping up. Champagne the drink is a common noun, however here it is always capitalized. A horse is referred to as “mare” and a “he” in the same sentence. The last forty pages are repeated almost completely verbatim from flash-forwards that take place in earlier chapters.
Overall, I found this novel to be interesting in concept but a bit of a mess in execution. Pataki has several other novels out, and I plan to pick up one of her later works to see if her writing style has improved.
My rating: 2.5/5
Happy reading everyone!