‘The Traitor’s Wife’ by Allison Pataki
That was my reaction throughout and upon infinishing Allison Pataki’s The Traitor’s Wife, a historic novel purporting to tell the story of Benedict Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold. The novel starts with Peggy Shippen, flirty teenager, to establish her pre-Benedict loyalist sympathies and then continues to track her relationship with Benedict in the most unflattering way possible to both parties through to the famed betrayal.
Like Kate Pullinger in The Mistress of Nothing (two books I couldn’t help but compare), Pataki chooses to tell the story of a fascinating and often challenging woman from the perspective of her maid. While this could be an interesting choice, and I look forward to reading Jo Baker’s Longbourne to see how she fares, neither Pataki nor Pullinger make it really work. In Pataki’s case, the maid in question serves mostly as a patriotic space-filler, alternately mooning after the stableboy and trying to SAVE AMERICA by thwarting her conniving mistress.
And this is a real missed opportunity. Peggy Shippen Arnold is a historic figure I was entirely unaware of and she played a pivotal (and even instigatory) role in her husband’s famous treason. Yet, even after finishing The Traitor’s Wife, I didn’t have a particular good sense of who she was or why she did these things. Such a vivid person who committed such dramatic acts is surely ripe for novelization and would benefit greatly from an examination of the inner mind—perfect for a novel!
Instead, Pataki foists the narration onto a fictional servant who does nothing to help the reader understand the deeper motivations of Peggy Shippen Arnold. By the end of the book, readers are left to assume Peggy betrayed her country because she was a spoiled brat driven to evil because she just wanted nicer dresses and the British would give her nicer dresses. Such reasoning seems a glib, and somewhat insulting, explanation given her evident political and tactical intelligence.
Meanwhile, the servant in question would be better at home in some sort of Revolutionary War-era version of Little House on the Prairie. Indeed, I would gladly read a series of light-hearted books about her setting up a life for herself with said stableboy on the banks of the Hudson River during and after the Revolution. However, her narrative pales beside the high drama and high politics of the Arnolds’ treasonous activities and the contrast benefits neither storyline.
On the whole, all that isn’t explored in The Traitor’s Wife proves more diverting and distracting than the story itself. It isn’t the worst piece of historical fiction I’ve ever read, and Pataki’s grasp of the period is solid, but I still couldn’t quite enjoy it.