The Traitor's Wife
by Allison Pataki

Simon & Schuster, 2014. ISBN 978-1-476-73860-4.
Reviewed by Judy Alter
Posted on 02/04/2014

Fiction: Historical

Peggy Shippen Arnold was known as a loving wife, devoted mother, and brilliant socialite, though with possible Loyalist leanings during the Revolutionary War. In truth, she was a spoiled debutante, a manipulative wife who led her husband into treason and planned to cuckold him once reunited with her British lover, and a careless mother, a cunning woman, self-centered, always scheming for her own comfort and luxury.

When British forces occupied Philadelphia, she led a gay life going to extravagant parties and balls, with her eye set particularly on Major John André. When colonial forces under General George Washington routed the British from the city, Peggy was devastated—briefly. And then, in a most unlikely move, she set her cap for General Benedict Arnold, a man twice her age who walked with a pronounced limp from a wound suffered at the Battle of Saratoga. She coerced, seduced, and charmed the general into marrying her. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Allison Pataki has done a masterful job of bringing the Revolutionary War era alive, with detailed descriptions of food, clothing, parties, and manners—down to the banging of pots and pans in the middle of the city on New Year's Eve. Peggy comes alive as a character too, even though the reader may occasionally want to throttle her. Benedict Arnold is, in this novel, a much more sympathetic character—as much a diamond in the rough as André was dashing and charming. Arnold, once a major military hero and general in Washington's army, throws over his career and his loyalty to his country because his wife, unsatisfied with his financial affairs, convinces him that the colonial army owes him better and he will receive more honor and compensation if he defects to the Redcoat side. In the end, the reader will breathe a sigh of relief that Arnold escapes André's fate—the hangman's noose.

The strength of this book, however, is not the likeability of the major characters but the unfolding of history, a part of our national heritage. We all know the names but few of us know the details that led to Benedict Arnold's downfall. To tell the story fully, Pataki weaves fictional characters into the narrative dominated by historical figures and facts. The picture of George Washington as a charming and quite tall man may surprise others as it did me.

Pataki opens her well-researched story on the day Benedict Arnold learns that he has been discovered as a traitor. This rather brief prologue and subsequent short present-tense passages throughout the book are narrated mostly by Clara Bell, a farm girl come to the city, through the graces of a friend of her late grandmother, to serve as a ladies maid to the daughters in the Shippen household and ultimately to Peggy Shippen Arnold. Clara provides a sort of common-sense balance to the flighty self-indulgence of her mistress. The building story of treason, in between the present-tense passages, is told in third person, though often focused on Clara, who seems to be ever-present at conversations and doings in the Arnold household. One brief passage is narrated by Arnold as he desperately rows toward the British ship, the Vulture, and freedom. These alternating passages, playing present against past, build to a crescendo, creating suspense as the story unfolds.

Clara, who is almost as central to the book as Peggy and Benedict Arnold, also provides an interesting picture of the contrast between servants and the wealthy in colonial America and demonstrates the freedom for which colonial forces fought—anyone, as she tells Peggy late in the book, is free to choose his or her own life. She has spent too many years catering to the whims of her demanding mistress and being reminded by the other household staff of her precarious position as a maid.

Ultimately, at least in this book, Benedict Arnold is a tragic figure, a man beset by painful war wounds, besotted with his wife and with ale, a patriot who turns failed traitor and loses everything. Peggy Shippen Arnold is a more puzzling character—able to charm every man in the room and yet dangerous, with no loyalty to anyone but herself. Fact or fiction, it makes absorbing reading and provides an eye-opening look at history and the way things might have come about. In an afterword, Pataki makes clear the distinction between fact and fiction, so you can't take this as gospel history. But I certainly know more about Benedict Arnold than I did before I read her book.

The daughter of former New York Governor George Pataki, Allison Pataki grew up in a part of New York rich with the history of the Revolutionary War. A graduate of Yale University, she spent several years writing for TV and now lives in Chicago with her husband. This is her first novel. Visit her website.

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