I received a copy of Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival by Jennifer Chiaverini for review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
About the Book:
Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival begins in the days leading up to the 1860 presidential election. Kate Chase, daughter of the thrice-widowed Salmon P. Chase, is bright, charming, and firmly ensconced as her father’s political ally and the female head of his household. Despite the Chase family efforts, however, Abraham Lincoln and not Salmon P. Chase ascends to the presidency at the start of 1861. The family ends up in Washington anyway, though, when Lincoln appoints Chase to be Secretary of the Treasury.
What follows is a mash-up of political intrigue, personal life, Civil War strategy, and social engagements. The story follows the Chase family until Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.
I had higher hopes for Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival than I should have, perhaps, seeing as I’d never read anything by Jennifer Chiaverini before. Her Elm Creek Quilts novels have never appealed to me, but the premise of Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival sounded promising.
The novel started off quite interesting. Though Kate came across as flat and irritatingly perfect throughout the book, she made a decent lens through which to follow Lincoln’s election and the start of the Civil War. She was, after all, in the middle of things while such events were occurring. I learned a few things , found the history fascinating, and was looking forward to more of the same.
The rest of the book, however, took a different path. It alternated between Kate’s rather predictable (though far from smooth) love life, the social situation of Washington, and her father’s political aspirations and errors. Parts read like a list of historical events, others like morality tales, and still others like snippets from a bad romance novel. It all seemed a bit Frankensteined together. I suspect maybe there was too much to cover, but rather than choose judiciously what to include, Chiaverini just tossed it all in and brushed over the surface instead of giving weight to much of anything. On top of all that, the parts I’d been interested in mostly disappeared. The Civil War was mentioned briefly every few chapters but was largely ignored. Lincoln’s political doings faded into the background. I did a lot of eye rolling and tuning out while the story chattered on in my ears.
The writing in Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival was mediocre. In my opinion it relied far too heavily on “tell” and not at all on “show.” We’re told exactly what Kate is feeling, for instance, instead of being invited to infer through a more subtle approach. We know precisely what Kate is wearing most of the time, even when its relevance to the story is highly questionable. The characters are distressingly two-dimensional. It’s hard to make two-dimensional characters develop, so I guess I can’t cite the lack of growth as a separate issue. Kate’s father comes across as a bit of an idiot, her younger sister a wheedling child (even when she’s grown old enough not to be). Kate herself is virtuous and all-knowing and the model of propriety from first page to last. The only person in the book I liked at all aside from Lincoln was a minor character, a friend of Kate’s whom she doesn’t even come close to appreciating. I was willing to put up with all of this when the content itself was interesting to me, but as the book progressed, I lost my patience.
It bothered me quite a lot that the book was titled Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. The rival aspect felt extremely forced and not at all the main angle from which Kate Chase was portrayed in the book. It may have been that an actual rivalry existed — both women were, after all, historical figures — but I suspect the evocation of Mrs. Lincoln in the book’s title was more to borrow her fame than anything else. The reason for the two women being at odds is never really made clear, and the occasional attempts to highlight the rivalry came across as forced.
I’m pretty sure it’s unfair to judge Kate Chase by the way she’s portrayed in Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. If anything, the novel has made me interested to find out what the real Kate Chase was like. I imagine she must have been more human, more dynamic, than she is in this version of her life. I hope so, at least!
Christina Moore was fine as the audiobook’s narrator. She didn’t sound the way I’d imagine Kate to sound, but there’s nothing I can really fault her on. Who knows, without her steady reading, I may have given up on Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival long before the end!
The Verdict: Lacking
I finished Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival because I’d committed to reviewing it, and a book has to be atrocious for me to abandon such a commitment midway through. Still, in the end I found it rather disappointing and would have given up after the first few discs had I picked it up on my own. Not one I’ll be extolling to anyone who will listen, that much is certain. I won’t be dashing out to pick up another book by Chiaverini, either.
What novels have you hoped to learn from that ended up letting you down?