Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review: America's First Daughter

Summary: In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy. From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France. It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father’s troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love—with her father’s protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William’s wife and still be a devoted daughter.

Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father's reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded. -- William Morrow

Last week, I posted a summary of my book club's meeting to discuss AMERICA'S FIRST DAUGHTER by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. The book was a huge hit for all but one member, and I do think it's a testament to the quality of the story that ten people finished a 600+ page book! I will be the first to admit that I wasn't too thrilled when our group voted and picked AMERICA'S FIRST DAUGHTER (mainly because of the length), but I am definitely glad we read it and found so much to discuss.

AMERICA'S FIRST DAUGHTER is historical fiction at its best. It tells the story of Patsy Jefferson, the eldest daughter of of Thomas Jefferson and a pretty important woman in the early days of our country. After Patsy's mother dies, she becomes an influential figure in Jefferson's life; and her devotion to her father is (for the most part) admirable. Quite frankly, I don't know how Jefferson could have handled his family and his service to his country without Patsy's assistance.

When Jefferson became the American minister to France, Patsy traveled with him to Paris. Not only did she experience the sights and sounds of this gorgeous city, but she was also there to see the early days of the French Revolution. In addition, a fifteen year old Patsy finds herself falling in love with her father's right hand man, William Short, while also realizing that her father is indeed human -- as he was having an affair with a very young slave, Sally Hemmings.

Patsy is forced to decide between her love for William Short and her love and devotion to her father. Not surprising, Patsy chooses to support her father; and when she returns to Monticello, this choice eventually leads to some very difficult times for her. She marries a troubled man who eventually becomes an abusive alcoholic, and she becomes a mother to a almost a dozen children.

As Jefferson continues to return to the political environment and eventually the presidency, Patsy is by his side through it all. Even though the Jeffersons face a family scandal (or two), a tragedy, and even major financial woes, Patsy always plays the role of her father's staunchest supporter... even when it is a sacrifice to her own life and happiness.

I enjoyed AMERICA'S FIRST DAUGHTER, but I don't know if I'd go so far as to say I loved it like many of my book club friends. I'm not the biggest fan of chunky historical fiction books; however, I did find that it was an intriguing story and it didn't seem to be all that long. I did take me some time to get into the story, but once I was in, the plot was definitely fast-paced and I found myself caught up in the characters and their lives.

What I definitely want to get across with this review is that AMERICA'S FIRST DAUGHTER is extremely well-done. It absolutely has everything you could ever ask for in a historical fiction story. I appreciated so many things about this novel including the amount of research these authors conducted prior to capturing Patsy's story. I don't know about most of you, but I really knew next to nothing about Patsy except that she was devoted to her father. I loved how Ms. Dray and Ms. Kamoie brought her character to life and made her so real.

Another fantastic aspect of this story was how it was told. The authors did a great job of using Jefferson's actual letters to tell the reader about the historical events and Jefferson's state of mind (which was not all that good sometimes!) By using Patsy's voice to give insight into the events, the story was all that more interesting. I enjoyed not only seeing how Patsy protected her father while he was alive, but also how she chose to release only those letters that she believed pertinent after his death. It was truly like Patsy devoted her entire life to serving and supporting Jefferson and even shaped his legacy.

I have been a fan of Ms. Dray's books in the past, and I think she's just a fantastic writer. I now consider myself a fan of Ms. Kamoie's too! It is apparent that they researched the heck out of this subject and truly got a grasp of Patsy's character. What I think made AMERICA'S FIRST DAUGHTER so special, though, is how much detail they added to the book. (For those of you who know me, you might be surprised by that statement!) I was so impressed with how they brought not only the characters to life, but also Paris, Monticello and even the White House. I loved the descriptions of the settings and the fashion, and I even liked the inclusion of Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison in the story.

Needless to say, AMERICA'S FIRST DAUGHTER was a big hit with my book club and I bet it would be with yours too. There is a reading guide with twelve thought-provoking questions, but we found that we had enough to discuss without following it all that closely. In addition, because we are lucky enough to be a Book Club Girl book club, we were sent a packet of bonus material that included a description of Jefferson's home Monticello, some deleted scenes from the novel, some photographs. Some of the themes you might want to explore include father/child relationships, devotion, secrets, sacrifice, motherhood, marriage, abuse, alcoholism, the role of women, and slavery.

AMERICA'S FIRST DAUGHTER is a great book! I think Ms. Dray and Ms. Kamoie are onto something with writing about early America's influential women. In fact, I'd be thrilled if they decided to explore a few more female pioneers -- like Dolly and Abigail! Highly recommended!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


bermudaonion said...

I have a feeling this is going to be a big hit with historical fiction lovers.

Beth F said...

I've been putting this off for summer because of the length. But it looks like I'm in store for some good reading.

The Queen Bee said...

Oh, thank you. I immediately put this on my 'Want to Read' list on Goodreads. It looks like a book I'd like.


Bonnie Marie said...

I already purchased this book and have it in my 2017 kick off book. We are one year and three months old. For the remainder of this year we discuss Me Before You, The Invention of Wings, Tge Goldfinch, The Widow of the South with a trip to Franklin TN and tour of home and cemetery. In August we individually read a Pat Conroy book and tell about it to group. How could we apply to become a Book Club Girl Bookclub? We currently have 11 members, started with 5.... I am hostess.

Julie P. said...

Bonnie Marie,

I think they pick book clubs once a year. If you go to Book Club Girl's site (, you will see a button to apply.

L. Flanagan said...

When I read the authors' notes at the back of the book, it stated that the romance with William Short was put in " for dramatic purposes." Consequently I started skipping anything with his name in it. Very disappointed in the book.