Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning

Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning
Reprint published June 2017 by William Morrow Paperbacks
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
After the death of her beloved mother, Martha Jefferson spent five years abroad with her father, Thomas Jefferson, on his first diplomatic mission to France. Now, at seventeen, Jefferson’s bright, handsome eldest daughter is returning to the lush hills of the family’s beloved Virginia plantation, Monticello. While the large, beautiful estate is the same as she remembers, Martha has changed. The young girl that sailed to Europe is now a woman with a heart made heavy by a first love gone wrong.

The world around her has also become far more complicated than it once seemed. The doting father she idolized since childhood has begun to pull away. Moving back into political life, he has become distracted by the tumultuous fight for power and troubling new attachments. The home she adores depends on slavery, a practice Martha abhors. But Monticello is burdened by debt, and it cannot survive without the labor of her family’s slaves. The exotic distant cousin she is drawn to has a taste for dangerous passions, dark desires that will eventually compromise her own.

As her life becomes constrained by the demands of marriage, motherhood, politics, scandal, and her family’s increasing impoverishment, Martha yearns to find her way back to the gentle beauty and quiet happiness of the world she once knew at the top of her father’s “little mountain.”

Martha Jefferson Randolph
My Thoughts:
In the 1970's my family loaded up in the station wagon, hitched on the pop-up tent camper, and headed off on three-week vacations. One of the places we went was Monticello. Even then I was impressed with the unique home, beautiful grounds, and amazing innovations used by Jefferson.*

When I was asked to review a book called Monticello, I didn't even read the publisher's summary. Whatever the storyline was, I was in.

I was delighted to find that Gunning's story centers around Thomas Jefferson's eldest daughter. Martha has not just returned from France with a heart made heave, she has also returned with eyes opened to the realities of slavery. Not only that, but she becomes ever more aware of the relationship between her family and the slave family, the Hemings, particularly the beautiful Sally, who is actually Martha's aunt.

Martha is constantly reminded, though, that her very way of life depends on those slaves, both as the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and the wife of Tom Randolph. It is Martha's marriage to Randolph that forms the core of the novel, although Martha's father is never far from the story. While the two came from similar backgrounds and shared conflicted feelings about slavery, his volatility and bouts of depression, made their marriage often times very difficult for Martha. Gunning has combined the story of their very interesting life together, Martha's relationship with her father, and the slavery issue in a book that managed to keep my attention when very little else could.

As I always do when I'm reading fiction based on the lives of real people, I had to do some research to see how much of what Gunning wrote was based on reality. I was please to find that Gunning has based the book on Martha's own letters to her father and his to her and set those interactions into a story that's setting and other details have been thoroughly researched. If you're going to write about about real people, it's the only way to tell their story.

Thanks to the ladies at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I'm looking forward to putting it into my mom's hands soon. For other opinions about the book, check out the full tour.

About Sally Cabot Gunning 

A lifelong resident of New England, Sally Cabot Gunning has immersed herself in its history from a young age. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Satucket Novels—The Widow’s War, Bound, and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke—and, writing as Sally Cabot, the equally acclaimed Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard. She lives in Brewster, Massachusetts, with her husband, Tom. Find out more about Sally at her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

*I was also impressed by my dad's ability to convince a tour guide to allow him into areas that no other visitor is allowed to see, simply by telling her that he was an American History teacher. He may also have batted his baby blues at her.


  1. I've been to Monticello several times and am always amazed by just how lovely it is (though honestly I prefer Mount Vernon). Martha has always been an intriguing character to me. It always seemed like there was so much pressure on her because she so frequently had to step up and run her father's household. While Thomas Jefferson was brilliant and incredibly innovative he's never struck me as an easy man to live with. I'm glad you enjoyed this one and that it captured your interest. It sounds like an interesting read that I need to add to my list.

  2. I went to Monicello on a family vacation as well. It was beautiful!

    I'll have to add this book to my to-read list. Thanks for the review.

  3. Like you, I do a bit of research to know how closely a story like this is based on reality. The fact that the author relied on Martha's own letters really appeals to me.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!