Book review: The Traitor’s Wife, by Alison Patnik (this is not how you write historical fiction)

This was, frankly, a hate listen.

I almost tossed it back early, but I had some curiosity to see how the marriage was handled — then I wanted to see how characters evolved through later events, and also the validation to be able to write this review.

Because this is an awful example of historical fiction. I spent the entire book banging on my steering wheel as I yelled, “NO ONE DID THAT.” That was my mantra, because indeed, no one behaved like that back then (examples forthcoming).

But what really offends me about this book is that while it’s told through the POV of the maid, Clara, the title character is Peggy Shippen, and she was written in as ugly a way as possible. We are supposed to dislike her, and I hate portrayals of women like that. She’s written as unbearably spoiled, selfish, and shallow as you can imagine, completely reckless of her reputation, without a shred of honor or conscience.

And it makes me so mad, because from the little I read about the historical Peggy Shippen outside of this book, it is completely unfair. She had to be much more capable and mature than she’s portrayed, in order to pull off what she did.

Worst of all, Benedict Arnold is portrayed as a slightly dense, good-old-boy, beer-drinking guy who never would have thought to betray his country if it weren’t for his wife. Even after months of plotting, when it comes to actually making the agreement that he’d turn over Westpoint for 20,000 pounds, he’s all, “It just feels wrong! What about honor?” and Peggy has to distract him with sex. This is so infuriating — it’s the worst kind of misogyny, when even the most infamous men’s sins are ascribed to the woman behind him (who is never once shown to have a shred of conscience or a moral qualm). Sure, at least it gives her some agency, but I still hate the message of “Benedict Arnold wasn’t such a bad guy! His wife made him do it.”

This book is so bad and terrible in its portrayal of Peggy Arnold (and in its glorification of the colonial army), I am glad that her scheme succeeded and she got a happy ending in real life (though the book tries to pretend it wasn’t). She got a comfortable life in England, she had five more sons and saw them succeed in the British Army, she was never hanged from a gibbet.

The book gave me so many moments to cringe over, but to list just a few:

  • Peggy inviting a British soldier into her bedroom, during daylight hours, while she’s not even dressed (NO ONE DID THAT, ESPECIALLY NOT IN HER SOCIAL CLASS)
  • Peggy begging that same British soldier to let her follow him when his troop is leaving the city (YOU’RE NOT A CAMP FOLLOWER AND YOU KNOW THAT)
  • A major-general entering a house and stopping to greet the servant by name and to say “Good to see you” (NO ONE TALKED TO SERVANTS THAT WAY)

Then there are just some cartoonishly villainous moments, like when a soldier tells Benedict the men are upset about how he eats lavishly with his wife every day while they’re starving, and after the soldier leaves, Benedict and Peggy laugh while pouring milk into a cup until it overflows onto the table.

I could not stand the sickly-sweet nicknames (Peg and Benny) that were also completely anachronistic and UGH. This is one of those books that make me realize how infuriating it’ll be if I never get published.

Also, the maid’s romance with the stable boy is the epitome of boring, boring heterosexuality. Mind-numbingly dull. I fast-forwarded through the scene where they first confess their love.

No stars awarded.

2 thoughts on “Book review: The Traitor’s Wife, by Alison Patnik (this is not how you write historical fiction)

  1. A novel being about important historical figures but told through the eyes of a servant is a BIG red flag for me. As is a title that fills this mad lib: “The [Occupation/Title/Descriptor]’s [Female Relative]”. Nice to have my prejudices confirmed, I guess!

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