Sunday, May 3, 2015

Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini, reviewed by Charlene Jones

Dutton (part of the Penguin Group) New York, New York, March 2015, pp: 384, Hardcover $19.44; Kindle $13.99 from Amazon.ca here.  

The book jacket and the story within this book differ. That is to say the title implies the story inside the book will be about the lives of two women, Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule. Further the back page states, “New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverine imagines the profound and complex relationship between Julia Grant, beloved First Lady and the slave who was her namesake.”
First off that blurb describes the character Madame Jule without reference to her name, as though indeed being a slave meant she had no real identity. Let’s give the publishers that and take the situation a step farther.
The story itself does not actually deal with the relationship between Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, whose life has been largely imagined from a few scant references in the diaries of Mrs. Grant nee Dent. In fact the Madame of the book’s cover does not get her title until near page 300 leaving only the last quarter of the book to reveal what happens after Jule has become Madame Jule.
The relationship so touted on the book’s back page remains the primary thread of the narrative only until Mrs. Grant becomes Mrs. Grant, somewhere around page 60, wherein the narrative switches loyalties. Now the focus falls on the love between Mrs. Grant and her husband, the illustrious, and perhaps less smitten, Ullysses S. Grant. That their marriage contained a few traces of his unabashed sexism and perhaps a dash of infidelity does not deter the author from portraying Mrs. Grant as the embodiment of a Southern Woman’s ideal of wife.
And that is that. The narrative follows Jule, former slave to Mrs. Grant as she first marries, then loses her husband, runs away from slavery and the Dent family, establishes herself as a maker of salves and potions, as well as a hairdresser, grows into being a manufacturer of same and takes on the business name of Madame Jule.
Though Jule sees Mrs. Grant occasionally in Washington D.C., Mrs. Grant never sees Jule again. The two part company early in the book and so it remains.
The story is well written, as a love tribute to U.S Grant from the perspective of his plain and loving wife, Julia. Details regarding the Civil War, Abe Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln, as well as Mark Twain emerge scrupulously researched and passionately committed to page.
The struggle for this reader is well stated in J.C. Hallman’s article for Medium, called “On Book Reviews Or: how to avoid the boneyard of dead metaphors.”
That title lies. It is not what the article contains. The article contains information revolving around selling books and therefore creating jackets intent on sales, whether true to the narrative or not. Hallman writes, “But what’s interesting to me is that the “number two’s remark…suggests that a book’s title is not formally “the book,” but merely a marketing strategy for it…”
That defines my problem with Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule in a nutshell. The book states this as the theme of the narrative, but the story tells differently.

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Charlene Diane Jones’ poetry has appeared for over three decades in some of the best journals in Canada and the US, Prairie Schooner, Canadian Women’s Studies, Quills and more. Together with Linda Stitt, she published Bliss Pig with Dundurn Press (here), also available on Amazon.ca here. Ms. Jones recently released her first novel The Stain to critical acclaim (available here). Writer, Actor and Producer Brendan Gall wrote, “An astonishing debut.” Charlene’s publishing company heartongue press proudly announces its first title, “Talking to Myself” by Linda Stitt due out in late spring 2015.

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Niagara on the Lake, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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