Review of The Beautiful American

4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging, well paced. January 15, 2014
By Bev Scott, author, writer, retired organizati… – See all my reviews
This review is from: The Beautiful American (Paperback)
I was engaged in this story which begins in current time with an antique dealer, Abby, who purchases a coveted lady’s desk for herself. The desk is not only the connection between Abby and her suitor, Nathan, but also with the primary character of the second and major story line, Jasmine, a slave in the Virginia household of the future President James Monroe. This second story unfolds when Abby finds a diary in her new desk.
The author’s descriptions are vivid and clear and carried me into the experience of Jasmine’s struggles to help with and learn her letters beside her master’s spoiled and self-centered daughter, Eliza. Jasmine’s character develops from a naïve inexperienced young girl awed by her opportunity to move into the big house, receiving clothes, an education to a more confident young woman enchanted with a young aspiring artist she meets in Paris where Master Monroe serves as Ambassador to France.. Jasmine supports her mistress, Elizabeth Monroe, in preparations for entertainment, settles the high-spirited Eliza, keeps confidences for Elizabeth and earns a privileged place in the Monroe household.
I liked the inclusion of actual historical characters in this story. We follow the realistic characters of James and Elizabeth Monroe, as James becomes a significant player in the politics of our new nation. Monroe is encouraged and supported by Thomas Jefferson. The author even brings in Napoleon and his wife Josephine while the Monroes are living in Paris. The story is not deeply involved in the historical realities of these characters but adds spice to bring them into the story
Jasmine’s story is told primarily in her voice. This point of view allows the author to give us an intimate view of Jasmine’s character by using the dialect of the uneducated slave. Following this dialogue can be a challenge for the reader, but Holdsworth manages to use it to convey image and character of without slowing the reader down too much. As Jasmine is educated, including learning French, the author drops the use of the dialect. At times it was a bit confusing when the point of view moves from the intimate first person to the observer’s voice in describing the experiences and actions of James and Elizabeth Monroe. Since the point of view is Jasmine’s telling of the story, I wanted Jasmine to tell me more of her internal dilemmas and thoughts about her condition. Does she worry about being surprised and perhaps raped by Gabriel, the bitter rebel slave from a nearby planation? Did she have internal conflicts about leaving her love in France? The story doesn’t tell us.
As a reader, I anticipated the evolving romance between Abby and Nathan as well as the outcome for Jasmine. I would like a little more uncertainty. The author uses the diary as the vehicle to reveal Jasmine’s story. Yet I wonder if an uneducated slave would tell her story in a diary. Finally the title “The Beautiful American” is used to describe Elizabeth Monroe but the story is really about Jasmine…she is the beautiful American. Despite the questions I have raised, Jasmine’s story as well as the opening story of Abby and Nathan kept me engaged with a quick pace and vivid descriptions in a realistic historical context.

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