Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, brings a new novel in Varina that feels more like a biography. Based on the life of Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, one gets the feel of traveling south with her and the children as they flee as fugitives after the Civil War.
A complicated person, Varina tells her unusual story at the end of her life to a strange visitor. The reader quickly realizes that this “novel” has been well researched with intimate details beginning with Varina’s marriage as a teenager to an older widower, expecting a secure life in the role of wife of a Mississippi landowner. Shock at visiting Jefferson’s first wife’s gravesite on the honeymoon foreshadows a loveless marriage to follow. The bubble of an easy life on a plantation bursts quickly as Jefferson’s overbearing brother rules the family, and Jefferson begins a career in politics.
In the years to follow, Varina and Jefferson will spend time with political figures and their associates including the lonely bachelor President Buchanan and Mary Chesnut who shares her opium supply with Varina. The couple will spend more time apart than together for the rest of their lives, often by choice, but somehow manage to keep the marriage together through the strained relationship and with Varina often the main financial support through her writings.
Varina seems to be part novel, part biography, but every bit intriguing. I loved this book even better than Cold Mountain which leaves me with another problem. I think I’ve got to add Charles Frazier’s other books to my stack.