Book Review: The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

Spies. War. The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini (author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker) has all of the makings of a captivating tale of intrigue and mystery, including a strong female protagonist.

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This historical fiction novel tells the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a fairly well to do Union sympathizer from Richmond, VA.  When Libby Prison opened in Richmond to house Union troops, Lizzie finagled her way in, charming the prison officers to allow her to bring provisions to the incarcerated troops. What the officers didn’t know was that Lizzie was exchanging secrets and gathering intel on Confederate troop movements and wartime operations, passing that information along to Union officers. Lizzie’s deep-rooted hatred toward the Confederate regime and everything the South stood for put her at particular risk for getting caught and inevitably killed. She deftly had to maneuver in ways that concealed her beliefs and her actions.

As the intelligence Lizzie collected from imprisoned Union troops grew, so did her network. She developed an underground spy ring and infiltrated all levels of the Confederate military without their knowledge. She was crafty and cunning and flew under the radar for the entire length of the war. However, her story is largely unknown despite her induction into the US Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1993.

I had never heard of Lizzie until picking up this book, but I am deeply intrigued by the story – and spy rings in general. Having done much research on the Culper Ring during the American Revolution and watching AMC’s Turn, I thought that The Spymistress would be similar albeit during the Civil War.

Yet, I couldn’t wait for the story to be over.

While I found Lizzie’s efforts laudable and I genuinely gravitate to a strong female protagonist, I found the story to be dry – like a re-read of a history textbook. I often thought that had it been written in Lizzie’s voice it would’ve been more colorful. As I turned each page I kept wanting more, waiting for a juicy subplot to unfold that made me stay up all night to read. I never found that within the pages of The Spymistress.

That is not to say that Chiaverini isn’t a talented writer. I think that my knowledge of the Culper Ring (which has no relation to Lizzie’s work) altered my opinion and I opened to page 1 with many preconceived notions of what I thought it would be. The movie never lives up to the book (there’s no movie, but just go with this analogy). I kept wanting more but never found it.

Needless to say, I have Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I WILL get around to it just not…yet.

On a scale of 1-10, I give The Spymistress a 6.5. If you’re interested in the Civil War especially a story that your history teacher didn’t teach you about in grade school, this book could be for you.

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