Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini
Pub. Date: March 3, 2015
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Dutton!!)
Summary: The New York Times bestselling author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker and Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival imagines the inner life of Julia Grant, beloved as a Civil War general’s wife and the First Lady, yet who grappled with a profound and complex relationship with the slave who was her namesake—until she forged a proud identity of her own.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Recommended for: fans of 1850s/Civil War-era fiction
One of the best things about being a bookseller is that I come across authors and books I would have otherwise never heard about. If you’ve been a follower of the blog for a while, I’m sure you’ve seen me mention this a few times (10, 20, who’s counting?) – I love finding those hidden gem novels, fantastic books that have gone unnoticed until someone finally came along and discovered the magic inside. Some of the hidden gems I’ve discovered over the years have made their way to several of my Top Reads of the year posts: The Perilous Gard, 2AM at the Cat’s Pajamas, and Glow. Admittedly, Jennifer Chiaverini isn’t an Under the Radar kind of author – she’s been on the NYT’s bestsellers list several times over – but I wasn’t fully aware of her until browsing bookshelves one day.
I’m actually a little surprised I didn’t know about her earlier. Her historical novels seem to revolve around a period of history that makes my heart skip a beat: the Civil War. When I came across Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule one day on netgalley, I knew I couldn’t wait any longer: I needed to finally see what Ms. Chiaverini was all about.
Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule follows the lives of two girls: Julia Dent and her slave Jule. As children, they were the best of friends and hardly ever spent a moment apart. As they grew older, however, the fine line between them also grew. Julia has her eyes on a handsome soldier, Ulysses Grant and despite his loyalty to the Union, the two fall madly in love. Ulys quickly rises in the ranks, gaining popularity and fame and Julia is determined to remain with him wherever he goes: from soldier’s camp to bustling Washington she gladly packs her belongings (and as the years go by, their children.) While the war rages on around them, inside Jule is battling as well. She cares for Julia, but she also knows that she should be free. General Grant’s family doesn’t approve of slavery, surely Julia would let her go? Jule has become quite the hairdresser, being hired out to other family when Julia’s away with Ulysses, and she’s confident of her abilities. One day, while Julia is racing to catch a train to be at her sick child’s side, Jule makes the decision to run. In that moment, everything changes.
Let’s get down to it: I really liked this book. A lot. The majority of the novel is set during the Civil War and as the chapters progressed, I knew what was coming: April 1865. When I finally reached that chapter I actually had to set the book down for a bit and walk away. I wasn’t sure how Lincoln’s assassination would be handled, but I was dreading it – his characterization was so lovely in the novel, I didn’t want to see him die. The scene wasn’t nearly as awful as I had been anticipating (it all happens off-screen, Grant receives the news in a telegram) and while I know this book isn’t about Lincoln, I was a bit shocked that little more was said. No talk of the hunt for Booth (the largest in history at that time), not even an off-hand comment.
The other part I hadn’t expected was how much time was devoted to General Grant. Naturally I didn’t mind one bit, but I was shocked to see his decline. Not gonna lie, I seriously teared up toward the end of his life. For a novel titled Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, there really isn’t much focus on their relationship at all. When Jule finally gets the courage to run, the novel splits into two: Julia’s scenes and Jule’s (y’all know how I love my dual POVs!) Years earlier, Jule has secretly married, only to discover he had been sold to someone in Texas. Her goal is to find Gabriel and in order to do so, she needs to make a living. She heads to New York where a couple helps her with clothes and food, ultimately finding her a way to head to Washington where she makes a nice living as a hairdresser and sells various creams and perfumes.
Where does Ulysses S. Grant end up? Yep, Washington. Julia’s new life as First Lady brings her closer and closer to Jule and over the years the bitterness and anger softens between the pair. There’s constantly talk of finding one another again, making amends – Jule even walks by the Grant residence after hearing the former president has passed. I thought for sure there would be a reunion…but there never was. So much buildup that led to nowhere.
Despite a few minor issues, I really enjoyed Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule. The characterization was great (although Chiaverini seriously went a little heavy on Mrs. Lincoln’s mental state) and certain scenes were downright heartbreaking. Fans of both Civil War-era fiction and Historical Fiction in general are sure to be delighted with this one.