Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki: A Review

A Novel
Allison Pataki
Published by Howard Books, February 11, 2014
Paperback, ebook, 496 pages
Historical Fiction, American Culture
My rating
4.5 out of 5 stars

My review
After his betrayal became public, Benedict Arnold's name came to be synonymous with traitor. Benjamin Franklin even wrote about him, "Judas sold only one man, Arnold three millions." His entire life was described by biographers as treacherous and morally questionable: his name, whether mentioned by social historians or fiction writers, still today carries a strongly negative overtone. Arnold was, in fact, the American general who, while serving in the American Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, defected to the British side.  In command of the fortification at West Point, he planned to surrender it to the enemy's forces. When Arnold's plan was exposed in September 1780, he was commissioned into the British army as a brigadier general. Bizzarely, in a letter to Washington, he claimed, "Love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right  of any man's actions."

Arnold's second wife, Peggy Shippen, a socialite born in a prominent Philadelphia family with loyalist tendencies (she was the daughter of famous Judge Edward Shippen), played a significant role in her husband's conspiracy. She orchestrated it, to be more precise. After documents proving the general's plan to surrender the critical army base were exposed (following the arrest of Peggy's paramour John AndrĂ©, the British major who carried those incriminating papers in his boots), Peggy Shippen Arnold fled to London with her turncoat husband. It is around this controversial figure that Allison Pataki crafted her debut historical novel, The Traitor's Wife, a fictional account of the most infamous act of treason and the love-triangle that threatened to compromise the American fight for independence. 

"Peggy Arnold can take care of herself. She can play the role of siren, laughing, and flirting, and dancing until she's clouded the judgment of every man in the room. No one will suspect a flower of such a beautiful bloom to conceal a serpent underneath. She can manage it. She can manage anything."

Peggy Shippen, described by historians as quite pretty, smart, and a favorite among the young officers in Philadelphia (both British and Colonialist), is expertly portrayed by first-time author Allison Pataki with the vividness, the antics, and all the drama  of an unsufferable, scheming, spoiled, and unsympathetic character. Absorbed in a world of silk, lace, and British officers, Peggy takes the stage with her frivolous and reckless personality, triumphing under the heady glow of male attention. But if on one hand she shows a superior acumen and extraordinary savoir-faire for a woman her age (you will enjoy the wit and bite of her lines), her openly loyalist tendencies come through as clearly mercenary and fueled by personal vanity rather than a genuine political vision. And to vanity she appeals to seduce and corrupt General Arnold, a nice and humble American hero who had single-handedly turned the tide of the entire war with his bravery.

"This Philadelphia society may be genteel, but it's not tame. In fact, sometimes it makes the French court at Versailles seem like a nunnery in comparison."

Conspiring with her former lover John AndrĂ©, Chief of British Intelligence, "a man who could charm the boots off the devil", Peggy manipulates Arnold into thinking that it wasn't him betraying his country, but rather the other way around. Arnold had personally financed George Washington's military campaigns, but the Continental Congress had been unable to compensate him for his generosity and devotion to the colonialist cause. Lack of monetary gratification was the Achille's heel that turned the Saratoga hero into a resentful spy. Peggy's seductive power was his undoing.

It's from this unapologetic characterization of notorious historical figures that the cinematic resonance stems and relentlessly imbues the novel. The narrative perspective Pataki chose to set the whole story in motion is the perfect light source to intensify shadows and lights of each and every character involved: the focal point is Clara  Bell, Peggy's lady's maid. Clara Bell is an entirely fictional character, but her narrating voice has the credibility and the motivation of an unnoticed observer, whose blind obedience is taken for granted and abused. She watches her mistress' plans of treachery unfold throughout the novel and, ultimately, she plays a crucial role in the battle.

Skilfully plotted and well-executed.

Allison Pataki — daughter of former Gov. George Pataki — has sold the screen rights to her book, “The Traitor’s Wife,” to Princess Pictures, run by former Goldman Sachs exec David B. Ford, and Pamela Fielder.
Princess will team up with “True Detective” producers Anonymous Content on the project.

***Review copy graciously offered by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased and honest review



  1. I had not heard of this compelling story. Complicated politically and a love triangle to boot. Has to be good.

    1. It is, Mystica. No surprise it's being translated into a motion picture. I hope you'll give it a chance.