As author Marie Benedict notes, if you look at those famous war photos of husband Winston Churchill (1873-1965) he is ALWAYS alone. It is fascinating to think that his wife Clementine may have actually been there, lurking just outside that camera shot.
So I want to congratulate Ms Benedict for bringing to light an interesting woman who did so much for her country. However, that doesn’t mean to say there weren’t any problems with this novel.
To begin with, it not well-paced, especially in the beginning. As one reader has noted, it does seem as it Clementine is always smoothing her skirt before something interesting happens, or touching her wedding dress, or describing the lace decorating her blouse. Details such as this are NOT meant to interrupt the narrative flow, but to enhance the drama. Unfortunately they INTERRUPT IT, which has the effect of exasperating the reader.
Like other readers, I also had a problem with the credibility of this account. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, the daughter of another dyed-in-the-wool feminist, so I am all for women getting the credit for their ideas. But even I had trouble believing this narrative, told from the point of view of Clementine, who takes credit for EVERYTHING Winston did. That just doesn’t seem plausible.
Then there is Clementine’s mother-guilt over her three eldest children: Diana (who died of suicide), Randolph (difficult from the word “go” with his tantrums) and Sarah (who had a tendency to get arrested). Clementine’s relationship with these three children does NOT show her in a good light and I think this novel would have been so much richer if only it had started in her childhood. From what little I was able to glean, Clementine had a chaotic childhood herself. Her mother was famous for her numerous lovers, and Clementine herself must have realized quite young that she was NOT Sir Henry Hozier’s daughter, but illegitimate, a daughter of an unknown father. Then she experienced the trauma of losing a beloved elder sister when she was just 15 years old.
All this emotional upheaval helps to explain not only her temper (she was an angry person) but also her dismal relationship with Diana, Randolph and Sarah. It took the death of her fourth child Marigold in 1921 (at the age of two) to shock her out of her self-absorption, so that when her youngest, Mary, came along in 1922, she at least had the good sense to employ a nanny who was a distant relative, and would prove a reliable parent for Mary, rather than the procession of nurses, nannies & governesses that her elder children had to endure. What a pity Ms. Benedict did not explore Clementine’s emotional history more thoroughly.
Lastly, this book relies far too much on the external tension of the historical facts, rather than having its own internal arc of tension. The book only really gathers momentum when the Second World War begins. Before that, it has a start-stop quality of snapshots of “important” scenes, such as Winston’s Proposal, the Wedding Day, the Birth of Each Child, the Move to the Admiralty (when Winston became First Lord in 1911.) Ms Benedict dutifully ploughs through each event whether it is inherently interesting or not, and there is no dramatic tension to knit these events together.
So even though I am grateful for learning about such a fascinating woman, I am going to take two stars off for the various problems enumerated above. Three stars.