After digesting over 1100 pages of Hamilton-related content, I believe this will be my last book review related to the treasury secretary for a while. However, I did receive a beautiful copy of The Revolution for Christmas, which covers the making of the musical; so I may continue being a paper snowflake fan after all. We’ll see.
Elizabeth Cobbs, author of The Hamilton Affair, is a historian and novelist, among other accomplishments. Her novel personalizes events from the lives of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton, revolving around their relationship and the factors that influenced it. It’s 400 pages exactly, which is a notable undertaking. Still, it’s a doable slice of pie next to Chernow’s 700-page biography (read my review of Chernow’s work here). That being said, here are some of the good and bad attributes of this novel.
First, The Hamilton Affair has a beautiful, shimmering cover and text that’s enjoyable to look at and read. The story contains creative imagery of places such as New York and the countryside in which Eliza grows up. Characters are developed well: Cobbs gives tasteful hints throughout the story as to Alexander’s and Eliza’s personalities, foreshadowing later developments. At the end of the novel, I had a consistent, satisfying picture of realistic characters. The chemistry and fondness between the Hamiltons felt charmingly tangible, as well. One of my favorite aspects of the story is how Cobbs surrounds her figures with a slew of spot-on details. She weaves historical events in seamlessly, making her characters come to life. She’s able to flesh out landmark moments in American history by viewing them through Alexander’s and Eliza’s eyes, which I found intriguing.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:
22: “The spring twilight had just started to gather, turning the rushing current of the wide river the color of dark plums.”
31: “On the gentle hillside she would hear the boom of the surf on the island’s clean sand and no one could ever again insult her honor in ways that sent a dagger through his heart.”
67: “Purple lilacs sweetened the air of sunrise, though Alexander barely saw them as he walked along the Hudson two years after his first breakfast in New York.”
98: “Alexander opened his eyes and dug stubbornly into the stew. Chunks of beef glistened among the cabbage and potatoes.”
144: “When Aunt Gertrude invited her to visit, Eliza knew it would bring her into the constellation of bachelors orbiting George Washington.”
333: “The Bible helped tamp down sorrow, anger, shame, and fear as the leafy shoreline slipped by. Just read, she thought, forcing herself to find meaning in characters that spilled like rice across the page.”
385: “The morning air was crisp. He drew in a deep breath as he reached the end of the forest trail, stepped into the clearing, and looked out upon the wide river and uninhabited shore opposite. Pink clouds streaked the crystalline sky.”
Next, I’m going to talk about some of the reasons why, for me, this book deserves a rating of about 3-3.5/5 stars. There were some elements that turned me off. These include an abundance of “telling,” which is something I mention fairly frequently in my reviews. Things that could have been spoken, shown, or left out instead interrupted the action in The Hamilton Affair. Many conversations are interspersed with background information to catch up the reader (chapters jump ahead years at a time, which is another facet of the story that renders the action a bit choppy). These intrusions feel awkward. For a short example of telling, on pg. 325, young Philip Hamilton makes an appearance. The narrator states, “Philip picked up a calico sleeping under the tall sash and sat down again. He had inherited his mother’s fondness for animals.” While reading, I felt that the second sentence wasn’t necessary to my understanding, and is fairly implied in the first.
Another major factor I disliked was the existence of quite a few racy lines or scenes. Don’t get me wrong: this is nowhere near other literature of our time. And while physical intimacy is a major part of the Hamiltons’ relationship, the blatant nature of some passages struck me as surprising and unnecessary. Simply a step too far.
Lastly, this is a minor issue, because, for the most part, Cobbs handles Eliza’s (and Alexander’s) faith lives well. When Eliza learns of the Reynolds affair, she turns to Scripture for comfort. Cobbs also includes Alexander’s dying reminder to Eliza that she is “a Christian,” to encourage her to be strong. On the last page, however, I ran across something that troubled me a bit. Elderly Eliza is reflecting on Alexander’s legacy and eternal destination: “It comforted Eliza that Alexander had atoned for his own mistakes years before, even though it flayed her pride at the time. She knew she would find her husband in Heaven. His sacrifices and generosity—his mercy toward even Burr—far outweighed his sins.” This threw up a little red flag in my mind. Christianity is founded upon the conviction that man cannot atone for his own sins, but requires the blood of Christ to render him righteous. In fact, the idea of “good outweighing bad” is directly opposed to the new covenant brought about by the resurrection. Eliza would have known her husband’s eternal dwelling with God wasn’t due to his own actions but rather the grace of God Himself. Again, in the scheme of the book, this is a minor detail; but faith is presented as a remarkable asset of Eliza’s identity throughout the novel. I thought it was worth noting.
In closing, I’d recommend a work like this to anyone who doesn’t have the time or motivation to complete something as imposing as the Chernow biography of Hamilton. In my opinion, Chernow’s work is superb; however, not everyone has that kind of time. Pick up something a bit lighter, like The Hamilton Affair, if you enjoy fiction more, and want a quicker course on the life of one of the hottest figures in pop culture at the moment.
Has anyone else read this novel? What are you guys reading right now? I hope you have a good day. 🙂