Eighteen-year-old Peggy Shippen, the favorite youngest daughter of a Philadelphia judge, has golden curls, a pretty face, a quick wit, and an insatiable desire for life's finer things. The most popular belle in local society, Peggy adores the handsome redcoats occupying her city, especially army officer John André, and connives to keep him close.
But when British troops evacuate Philly in June 1778, and new military commander Benedict Arnold declares martial law, Peggy uses all her wiles to attract the burly major-general and establish herself as a fervent patriot – especially if it means that luxurious goods left behind by the British will be given to her as gifts. Prone to tantrums when plans don't go her way, Peggy is that rare creature who can get away with screaming in ALL CAPS without it seeming exaggerated.
Wisely, Pataki doesn't put readers into the head of this willful, selfish woman. Instead, we can sit back and watch her entertaining antics through the eyes of her new maid, Clara Bell. Although grateful for her position in the Shippen household and dedicated to her job, Clara quietly believes in the American ideals of liberty and self-determination. As Peggy and Arnold's courtship gains ground, Clara sees Peggy encourage his resentment over the poor treatment and slights he received from the Continental Congress, who refuse to repay the debts Arnold incurred on the army's behalf.
Treated more kindly by Arnold than her mistress, though compelled to serve them both, Clara becomes an unwilling party to their plans as Peggy persuades her disillusioned husband to switch sides, with the secret assistance of her old flame, John André.
With her stirring plot about, well, a stirring plot, Pataki proves herself adept at distilling these complex historical circumstances into an easy-to-read fictionalized story. The Traitor's Wife reads much more quickly than its nearly 500-page length suggests. She provides visually appealing scene-setting details on the Shippens' upper-class Philadelphia household and looks beyond the famous figures to portray the less privileged lives of their servants. Although relegated to the sidelines in Peggy's view, Clara experiences her own touching love story and grows in inner strength over time.
The basics of the story are anchored in history, but there are some mistakes in the details. There was no "genteel British accent" in the late 18th century, for example – the colonists and British would have sounded about the same back then – and it feels odd to have Clara reflect on "all these years" she spent at Peggy's beck and call when the entire book spans 1778 to 1780.
Still, Pataki is a talented writer with a bright future in historical fiction; she successfully revives this centuries-old tale of deceit, manipulation, and lost honor and makes it feel fresh. Those who mistakenly believe American-set historical fiction is dreary and unexciting will likely find themselves changing their minds.
The Traitor's Wife was published on February 11th by Howard/Simon & Schuster ($14.99/$16.99 in Canada, trade pb, 457pp + notes). Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.