The Women Thomas Jefferson Loved
There is way too much repetition regarding Sally Hemings's kinship to various members of the Jefferson family. The author stresses over and over that Sally was Jefferson's wife's half sister, Jefferson's children's half-aunt, etc. Astute readers will get it the first (or second or third) time; they do not have to be told repeatedly.
The similes and metaphors the author used were ineffective, often made no sense, and were downright weird. The book would have been better without them. From Andrea Wulf's review in The New York Times:
Unfortunately, Scharff’s imagery can often pull the reader up short. To understand the entanglement of the Wayleses, Jeffersons and Hemingses is, she asserts, “a little like trying to eat spaghetti with a knife.” Martha’s body after her pregnancies was a “war zone.” Speculating on whether Jefferson had sex with Maria Cosway is “a little like playing tennis with an invisible ball.” Expectation and experience in a marriage collide, she tells us, “like a runaway wheelbarrow full of flower pots, jolting over a rock-strewn path.” Perhaps most bizarre, though, is Scharff’s conclusion that reality no more resembled Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of domestic bliss “than an unripe persimmon resembles a perfect pear.”I disagree with Wulf about the most bizarre image—the one that compares reassembling Monticello's columns to working Rubik's cube was worse. The book would have been much better without this strange use of figurative language.
Another problem was the switch back and forth in time, as the author showcased the next woman Jefferson loved. These women's lives overlapped. The story would have been better—or at least way easier to understand—in strict chronological order.
The author, a noted historian in her own right, did her homework. To her credit, she consulted numerous sources, and provided a plethora of end notes and an extensive bibliography.
From the book, I learned the lives of Jefferson and his women was marked by much unhappinesss: many deaths (only two of his children with Martha lived to adulthood, some of his grandchildren died in infancy, four of his slaves died within a week of each other, etc.), disease, and his ever-growing debt.
The book has changed my opinion about Jefferson. Instead of one of the foremost proponents of liberty, he now seems seems like a male chauvinist who thought a woman's place was in the home and who amassed a tremendous amount of debt. He thought women should be protected by men, but his accumulated debts left his female heirs unprotected after his death.
Was Jefferson the father of Sally Heming's children? The author made a good case that he was, although his children denied it. However, 1999 DNA tests indicate that at least one—Eston—and possibly more of her children were indeed fathered by Jefferson. Madison Hemings's 1873 memoir also mentioned Jefferson was his father.
While the book was no an easy read, I'm nonetheless glad I read it.