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Profile Image for Erin.
3,094 reviews484 followers
August 2, 2017
Despite the fact that the book's subject and main protagonist, Elizabeth Van Lew, grated on my nerves from time to time, this was by far my favorite Civil war era book by Jennifer Chiaverini. Elizabeth, her brother, John, and her mother are loyal to their government in Washington and find their core values shaken when Virginia votes to leave the union. Now they find themselves among neighbors who support the cause of the South. So in secret Elizabeth decides to get involved in an elaborate spy network hoping to get messages into the hands of those in Washington

I thought this book was well written and touched all of the historical fiction notes while also building up the atmosphere of tension and distrust that pitted neighbors against one another.
Profile Image for Taury.
556 reviews126 followers
August 13, 2022
The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini. A well written and researched book taken place during the Civil War Era. Lizzie and her family support the union believing in equal rights. Living in Virginia they they had to hide their loyalty to the union. She found ways to help injured union soldiers in confederate prisons. Lizzie used her place in society and financial abilities to send important information to General Grant. Everyone should be free and equal in front of God and the law. Lizzie was a true hero!
597 reviews16 followers
October 15, 2013
2.5 out of 5 stars.

At times The Spymistress can be a very enjoyable book. It depicts the story of Miss Elizabeth Van Lew, who collected information to aid the Union during the Civil War. As a woman living in Confederate Virginia, Elizabeth’s loyalties to the Union and abolitionist ideals put her within grave danger, yet she never backs down from what she considers to be her duty. She provided comforts to Union prisoners of war and sometimes helped them escape; she depleted her fortune to put towards the war effort; she created a spy network that passed on valuable information of what was occurring in Richmond -- all in all, she is a hero that is forgotten about in the history books we read at school, which is why many will take an interest in her story.

The detriment to the book, however, is that it is so heavy on the historical. By this I mean that you are reading about battle after battle, along with how the result of each battle corresponds to the atmosphere in Richmond. Elizabeth, as a character in this story, is not one that I would ever consider to progress; she starts off willing to aid the Union and she never changes from that. There is no character growth here; I cannot even say that I found many of the minor characters to be of much interest. The book came to the point where it felt as if I were reading a densely written history book. I grew tired of reading pages detailing battles. At the end I had to resort to skimming since I already knew the end result of the war and therefore became only curious to see what would become of a woman who had sacrificed so much once the war was over.
Profile Image for Gail Strickland.
624 reviews23 followers
October 20, 2013
You know those books you can't put down and hurry through them because they're so wonderful? This isn't one of them.
Profile Image for Historical Fiction.
924 reviews603 followers
October 21, 2013
Find this and other reviews at: http://flashlightcommentary.blogspot....

Civil War era lit is not easy for me to read. I think it a wonderful period with a wealth of compelling material, but I find a lot of writers get caught up in the morality of the conflict and end up releasing very simplistic and one-sided accounts that glorify the virtuous north against the villainous, bigoted and degenerate south. I get the appeal of the good vs. evil allegory, but it's been done a million times and at the end of the day, I find it banal and cliché.

Take the concept of self-emancipation expressed in Daniel Woodrell's Woe to Live On, the loss of innocence explored in Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain or the transformation of southern culture illustrated in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. These are sort of deeper themes I find appealing and I don't think Jennifer Chiaverini pushed that envelope with The Spymistress.

Lizzie is so blinded with her own self-righteousness that she never recognizes she wears death's blackened shroud, never bears the weight of the scythe she wields against her southern brethren and never shoulders an ounce of responsibility for the tragic fate of those who died by the information she spirited north. Perhaps I am alone in this, but it is hard to consider her compassionate when she seems so devoid of empathy for those who suffered the repercussions of her actions.

Maybe deep characterization isn't Chiaverini's thing. I haven't read her before so I'm not in a position to say one way or the other, but when I realized I wasn't going to find what I was looking for in Lizzie, I started looking at the bigger picture and the obstacles faced by those involved in the espionage ring, but unfortunately, I didn't find what I was looking for there either.

The distinct lack of tension bothered me. There is an implied element of danger, but I never felt as if Lizzie and her co-conspirators were facing a tangible threat and that really undermined the magnitude of what they were doing. Maybe I'd have been more convinced if there'd been more detail about their efforts or the actual information they were passing but as is, I spent my reading comfortable in the knowledge everyone would be okay in the end.

War is not simple, romantic or politically correct, but Jennifer Chiaverini's The Spymistress is all of the above. I give Chiaverini points for shedding light on a story with which I was not familiar, but I think she played it safe and that the piece could have been a lot stronger if she'd dug a little deeper and offered up something more complex than what I saw here.
May 30, 2019
Setting: Confederate Virginia

Despite her fervent loyalty to the Union cause wealthy spinster Elizabeth Van Lew cannot bring herself to abandon her beloved Virginia even after it secedes from the United States.
During her missions of mercy to the Union soldiers imprisoned in the Confederate capital of Richmond, she realizes she is perfectly situated to glean information that could hasten a Union victory.
Risking her reputation, her fortune and her life, she gradually constructs an intricate patchwork of spies, going even so far as to place an educated, freeborn black woman as a servant in the Confederate president Jefferson Davis household.
I really had high hopes for this book but found it to have information overload and had to skim through a lot of pages, as the story seemed to have a tedious recitation of historical events which in turn drained the tension and passion from what could have been a great historical "spy thriller." The story was well researched and gave a fascinating account of life on the Confederate home front for wealthy Union sympathizers, but there was just too much info even for me who likes detail in my books and I really struggled to finish it.
But if you like a meticulously researched book, then this is the book for you.
Profile Image for Lyn (Readinghearts).
323 reviews15 followers
September 27, 2013
There are a lot of books out there about the American Civil War, both Historical Fiction novels and Non-fiction histories. Unlike many of the civil war books out there, which tell grand, sweeping stories of famous battles, The Spymistress, established author Jennifer Chiaverini's new Historical Fiction novel focuses on a much smaller, but just as important, story. The book tells the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a staunch Unionist, who just happens to live behind the Confederate lines in Virginia. She also happens to become one of the most successful Union spies as well as running a vast spy network that encompassed people from all races and genders.

There are two things about this book that allows it to stand up there with the "big boys" and hold its own with the stories of Micheal and Jeff Shaara, John Jakes, Ralph Peters, and Geraldine Brooks. First, it focuses on a story that is alluded to, but not often the focus of other civil war books, that of the people working behind the scenes. Secondly, the book is told from a female point of view, with a female protagonist, which is not common in the stories about the battles. The fact that the woman in question, as well as her many associates, are true historical characters only makes the story that much more compelling. In fact, this is not just a story about Elizabeth Van Lew, but more a story about the many people caught behind Confederate lines that were willing to sacrifice all to stay true to the Union.

Before I read The Spymistress, I was only familiar with the work of Jennifer Chiaverini through her Elm Creek Quilts series of books. As entertaining as those books are, I can honestly say that I am more than thrilled that she has turned her hand to my favorite genre, Historical Fiction. The same vivid writing style and focus on characters that I am used to from her is also highlighted in this novel, but with it I got an additional focus on a historical period that is filled with stories to be told. Both the women in the book, Lizzie, Mary Jane Bowser, Eliza Van Lew, and Mary Carter West, as well as their male counterparts, are all vivid characters whose personalities and traits really shine in this book. In addition, Ms. Chiaverini's detailed and descriptive writing style allowed me to become entranced with the story being told, becoming thoroughly involved in the activities, places, and events that she described.

I have to admit, before I read this book, I had not really paid much attention to the idea of spying during the Civil War, nor had I even heard of Elizabeth Van Lew, Mary Jane Bowser, or any of the other characters in the book. I will forever be grateful to Ms. Chiaverini for introducing me to them and their stories. After reading this book, I am excited to read her other Historical Fiction book, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, which has been on my reading list for a while. In addition, I hope that she continues to write Historical Fiction books, especially those which tell stories that are not often covered. She has also ignited in me a desire to read more books about the characters in this book in particular, and spying during the Civil War in general, as well as reading more about the lives of the women behind the men of this time period.

A big thanks to Penguin USA and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my review. Also a big thanks to Katelyn McCrystal for including me in the blog tour.
March 15, 2022
(First Read) At times The Spymistress can be a very enjoyable book. It tells the story of Miss Elizabeth Van Lew, who collected information to aid the Union during the Civil War. As a woman living in Confederate Virginia, Elizabeth’s loyalties to the Union and abolitionist ideals put her within grave danger, yet she never backs down from what she considers to be her duty. She provided comforts to Union prisoners of war and sometimes helped them escape; she depleted her fortune to put towards the war effort; she created a spy network that passed on valuable information of what was occurring in Richmond -- all in all, she is a hero that is forgotten about in the history books we read at school, which is why many will take an interest in her story.

The slight downside to the book, however, is that it is quite heavy on the historical. By this I mean that you are reading about battle after battle, along with how the result of each battle corresponds to the atmosphere in Richmond. Elizabeth, as a character in this story, is not one that I would ever consider to progress; she starts off willing to aid the Union and she never changes from that. Comes off a lot as if reading a school history book. In a lot of ways, Chiaverini writes this book a lot like her other "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker."

(Second Read) The Spymistress is Chiaverini’s twenty-second novel. It focuses on the amazing life of another woman – Elizabeth Van Lew. A Virginian born into a wealthy Richmond family opposed to slavery, she was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia. After the death of her father in 1843, the family privately freed their nine slaves. Living with her widowed mother in a prestigious Richmond neighborhood, both were pro-Union and disheartened by Virginia’s secession in 1861. While Elizabeth’s brother, John, was also pro-Union, he was married to an ardent pro-Confederate.

The novel follows Elizabeth and other pro-Union Richmonders who joined her in helping the Union, including the formation of a spy ring. Overcoming the opposition of Lt. David Todd, the jailor of the Libby Prison (and Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-brother), Elizabeth carried food, medicine, and other materials to the imprisoned Union officers held in this former tobacco warehouse. She cultivated Gen. John Winder, in charge of the Richmond P.O.W. camps, on the grounds of providing Christian charity to Union captives whose conditions were horrific (despite Confederate disclaimers of abuse). This gained her an unfavorable reputation among her neighbors, which she tried to allay by showing a similar concern for wounded Confederate soldiers.

After gaining access to the jailed prisoners (often by either offering food or bribes to their guards), she began to smuggle information out of Libby Prison. This led to the formation of an underground spy ring to provide the Union army with important information about Confederate war policy and troop alignments. Van Lew scored her greatest success by planting Mary Bowser, a former servant, in the Confederate White House as a member of President Jefferson Davis’ household staff. Gen. Ben Butler and later Gen. Ulysses Grant would praise Van Lew and her fellow pro-Union supporters as their best source of information from the Confederate capital.

This was a dangerous game, with an early Union spy, whose identity was revealed by captured Pinkerton agents, hung. Chiaverini provides a spy mystery account of Van Lew’s adventures, including incidents threatening to uncover her pro-Union activities and the jailing of some members of her spy ring. This included her being denounced to the Confederate authorities by her estranged sister-in-law, whose husband, upon being forced into the Confederate forces defending Richmond against Grant’s Overland Campaign in 1864, deserted. Nevertheless, Van Lew persisted and not only gathered information, but helped Union prisoners to escape. However, she lost her access to Gen. Winder, who was reassigned to oversee the Confederate prison in Andersonville (and then died in early 1865). Good Re-read!! Recommend.
Profile Image for Kris (My Novelesque Life).
4,660 reviews189 followers
April 24, 2019

In Spymistress Chiaverini tells the story of a wealthy Southern spinster who aligned herself with the Union side. Elizabeth Van Lew's finacee died before they could marry and has remained true to his memory. She lived with her widowed mother, married brother (with his wife and two daughters) and houseful of "freed" slaves. Her slave-holding father made a stipulation in the will that the slaves could never be freed but the Van Lew women have told the slaves in their eyes they are.

When the Civil war begins the Van Lew family, minus her sister-in-law, align themselves with the Union but have to do so quietly. It becomes dangerous to help or side with the Union side so Elizabeth decides to go undercover like other "Unionists". She and her household risk everything to save innocent lives - black and white.

"Although Van Lew was inducted posthumously into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, the astonishing scope of her achievements has never been widely known. In Chiaverini's riveting tale of high-stakes espionage, a great heroine of the Civil War finally gets her due." (From Goodreads synopsis).

I knew that the Confederates were unkind to the Union side but I did not know that civilians in the South were treated so unkind. The atmosphere reminded me of Germany Nazi or the Salem Witch trials and made me shudder. I liked Elizabeth Van Lew a lot as well as her mother. I think this is a novel I would read again.

***I received an eARC from NETGALLEY***

My Novelesque Blog
Profile Image for Heather.
31 reviews11 followers
November 2, 2013
Grabbed this at the library on a whim based on the title and a quick peek at the jacket. Thought the book was well-researched, but it wasn't what I expected. With a title like The Spymistress, I expected thought there'd be some action and suspense. In my opinion, Chiaverini got bogged down by trying to include too many details. The pacing dragged as a result and the climax, if there really is one, appears to be the capture of Richmond which doesn't occur until the end of the book. Van Lew's story is interesting, to be sure. Told differently, I think it could have been very captivating.
Profile Image for Julie.
871 reviews
May 27, 2022
3.5. I’m very torn over my rating of this book. I learned a bunch, and generally I enjoyed it overall. But, I have to say there were times when it seemed to really bog down with repetition, especially with the narrative around bribing the prison officials with goodies, over and over.

I also found myself wanting MORE about the characters. I understand the war effort and the underground must have been consuming, but I really wanted more about their life personhood. Other than the little episodes over Lizzie’s sister-in-law, there just didn’t seem to be much about her family life or anything about her other than her war commitment. Maybe that is truly all she lived for, it just seemed like many of the characters were one dimensional.
Profile Image for Christina DeVane.
375 reviews32 followers
August 8, 2018
If you enjoy history and the civil war this is a must read! I love both and this is based on the real life of Elizabeth Van Lew, a spy for the Union. Excellent writing style and I also learned so much history in the process!
Profile Image for Me-Connie.
470 reviews57 followers
November 16, 2020
I only read this because my other book was downstairs which felt very far away.

It's a really bad sign that the most interesting part of this book was the letter at the beginning. My biggest issues with the book were the absolutely utter lack of plot, stakes, or character development. The entire book read like an account of battles of the US civil war; one general after another's actions were listed in what they were doing about Richmond. For readers who are in any way familiar with the US civil war, this will be a bore, for those who are not, it will read like an account of military movements with no characterization, tension, or stakes.

The spy ring mentioned in the fly cover doesn't start happening until page 173, 50% of the way throughout the book. The entire first half of a book is a description of where Lizzie goes, but there's not an ounce of characterization or stakes. Although it provides what seems like a complete timeline of Lizzie's war activities, a timeline isn't intriguing. How does she feel? Am I ever worried for her life? There's two more scenes of action in the last 50% of the book, but that's it. Both of these scenes are two pages long.

What actually bothered me the most is that Lizzie never makes one decision. In running a spy ring, there are decisions and choices about how to collect information, who to trust, what information is important. There's a lot of opportunity for tension and character growth as Lizzie learns to manage the spy ring. None of that was capitalized by Chiaverini and that was the story I was expecting from the fly cover.

I was also worried and nervous about reading a story about a white woman during the civil war. There's no need to amplify white voices, especially considering the impact that the civil war had on Black people. I bought this book in May of 2019, so that wasn't something I considered when I originally purchased it. The book mostly ignored any discussion of racism, but that was in the tone of the book. Black Codes were mentioned, but everything else that happened in the book was also mentioned with the same boring tone which imparted no emotion or stakes.
Profile Image for Brenda.
1,516 reviews67 followers
March 15, 2018
The Spymistress has been on my shelf for a while, and I finally got tired of looking at it there and decided to knock it out. I really enjoy anything pertaining to the United States civil war because it’s such a deeply complicated issue. Yes, on the surface it was pro-slavery or anti-slavery, but there were numerous factors that dictated the way people responded.

Ultimately this is a slightly glossed over historical fiction. I love that the author chose to write about a person who actually existed and worked on the fringes to assist with the Union. However, our main character was definitely out of touch. She did not suffer the way thousands of others did: marching into battle, a loved one marching into battle, a loved one dying from battle, abuse from prison guards, abuse from slaveholders, starvation, lack of funds. Indeed the family was so well off that while the fighting was practically at their door, she had to face none of it.

Everything is presented with a kind of rose-tint to it. Yes, men are dying in the horrible prison conditions, but Lizzie never really seems too affected by it. She doesn’t ever have a moral dilemma in passing on information to the Union either, which came as a surprise. She’s from Richmond, Virginia. She must know some of the men and boys fighting and dying, but she has no qualms about sacrificing them? Ultimately I think it was beneficial (obviously, since it eventually led to the end of slavery) but her lack of inner turmoil made it feel too flimsy. However, I would argue that maybe this is due to the author not wanting to take too many liberties with the real Lizzie Van Lew’s personality. Unless Lizzie wrote something in her diary or mentioned it to someone who wrote it down, there’s no evidence to say that she had that conflict with herself.

I really enjoyed the book though. As I said, I really love reading about the civil war and appreciate anyone who chooses to write about it.
Profile Image for Eyehavenofilter.
962 reviews99 followers
August 24, 2013
I think others will really enjoy this. BUT.... Besides one of the funniest.quotes I've read in ages this was just a bit too "historical" for me. I got this as an ARC, it wasn't my cuppa tea so to speak.
The characters were a bit 2 dimensional, with very little depth, and just when they could have been interesting there seemed to be no motive for their odd behavior.
I guess the Civil War isn't my thing?

Profile Image for Christy.
686 reviews
July 13, 2016
A riveting piece of history written in some-what fiction and non-fiction style. Elizabeth Van Lew (Lizzie) a Unionist spy for her country created a vast spy ring at civil war time starting in 1861. A memorable heroine of her time committed and determined. Lizzie also demonstrates warmth and love and a spice of witticism. I whole-heartedly enjoyed this novel; anyone who enjoys reading about strong women in history should give it a try.
Profile Image for Chelsea.
412 reviews29 followers
November 13, 2013
I really tried to finish this book, but I just couldn't do it. The main character, Lizzy, was a spinster in her late 40s who seemed superficial and whiney. I had absolutely nothing in common with her, which never bodes well when you're trying to immerse yourself in a story. I may try some of Jennifer Chiaverini's other books, but I just couldn't stand to listen to any more of Lizzy's complaints.
Profile Image for Christine (KizzieReads).
1,380 reviews93 followers
July 24, 2017
I really enjoyed this. The writing was much better than Mrs. Lincoln's Rival. It didn't seem to be as much of a historical text, as it was the story happening around the historical events. It was much faster paced, and I enjoyed knowing how Lizzie got her information and how she was able to get the info into the hands of the Union without getting caught.

Being Canadian, I just know the bare facts of American history, and it's nice to see these books telling the stories, not of the well known people, but of the smaller, lesser known people who had a much bigger impact on history than most people know about.
Profile Image for Colleen .
390 reviews188 followers
February 19, 2017
There is a power behind the throne mightier than the throne, and that power is the people.

Standing upon that narrow isthmus of time which connects the two segments of the calendar, the Old and the New Year it is natural that we should pause to reflect; should cast a keen retrospective glance upon the troubled tide over which we have passed, and peer intently into the Cimmerians darkness which envelops our future path....What does the impenetrable face of 1864 conceal of good or of evil for us?

Not mine, oh, Lord, but thine.
Profile Image for Tracy.
585 reviews43 followers
July 9, 2018
I hate giving low ratings to books that I want to love! But the truth is at almost 20% I'm not interested in the book. I also feel there are large amounts of info dumps that happen giving detailed historical data that makes me feel I'm reading a history text book. I honestly lose track of what's happening and who's who. So, I don't mean any harm or bad feelings to this author, but I'm going to set it aside now.... I hope this is a case of it's just me and not the book.
Profile Image for Joanna Jennings .
195 reviews19 followers
February 3, 2019
Fascinating account of a female Union spy in Richmond. I savored this book every time I had a chance... if I had had the audio, I know I would have inhaled it! :) Lol. I know it would be harder for my Southern friends to enjoy... but it was everything I like in a book-- historical, clean, and suspenseful. 5 stars!
Profile Image for Marlene.
2,947 reviews205 followers
May 11, 2014
Originally published at Reading Reality

This is a quiet kind of story. While the U.S. Civil War that is the reason for the book contains myriad stories of blood, gore, guts and warfare, the story of Elizabeth Van Lew is about a much quieter kind of courage, and makes for a quiet book.

What do I mean by that? Elizabeth Van Lew was a real person, a woman who was born and raised in Richmond Virginia, and continued to live there throughout the Civil War, in spite of being a strong Union sympathizer caught in the capital of the Confederacy.

Lizzie decided that her duty as a loyal citizen of the United States, the entire United States and not just the South, was to provide as much aid and comfort as she could to Union prisoners of war, up to and including running a sort of underground railroad to help them escape across Union lines.

She also created an extremely effective spy ring, and found ways to get messages to Union generals. Lizzy knew her stuff, she had embedded a servant into the “Gray House” to spy on Jefferson Davis, and had inserted a Union sympathizer guard into the infamous Libby House prison.

Lizzie was effective. But while she was the spy ringleader, most of what kept me reading was her accounts of the Confederate strategy and her reports of battle-readiness (or the lack thereof) of the Confederate troops and the defenders of Richmond.

Because she is most effective as a reporter, we don’t see her act. While she does feel threatened, she doesn’t face much personal danger. Her co-conspirators are arrested, but she isn’t touched.

We also don’t see as much of her interior life as necessary to make her a sympathetic character. We don’t see her displaying her feelings, even in private, beyond her jubilation at Union victories and her dismay at Confederate winnings. She’s so busy trying to make sure that she manages everything and everyone she can, that we don’t get to know her as much as readers might want.

But the life of the city that she reports on is fascinating. We see the war from the other side, not just the Confederate propaganda to its own citizens but also the way that things were on the ground. The hunger, the desperation, the effect of the continuing war on regular citizens.

The battles are often far away, but the effects are felt at home. And then, Richmond falls and Lizzy is finally recognized for her true accomplishments.

Escape Rating C+: It took me about 100 pages to get into the book, but it got more interesting as the war progressed, even when the battles are far from Richmond. Lizzie’s eyes and ears in the Gray House gave her a view of what was really happening, as opposed to what was being reported in the press.

Because she so often worked from the shadows, we don’t see enough of her in action. While this is historically accurate, it also takes some drama away from the fiction.

As a character, Lizzie is a bit dry, but the events that she reports on keep the reader pushing on, even though we know the result. The last quarter of the book, when the Union troops are closing in and Lizzie and her friends aren’t sure whether to celebrate or lock themselves in, do an excellent job of portraying a city on the edge of collapse.
Profile Image for Sherry Sharpnack.
854 reviews21 followers
February 28, 2022
I really loved Ms. Chiaverini's "Elm Creek Quilts" novels. I enjoyed "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker," but didn't find it quite up to the level of her Elm Creek historical novels. I feel the same way about "The Spymistress:" it's fine, but not fantastic. I felt that it dragged in the middle, but overall was an interesting story about a real-life woman living a nail-biting life.
Elizabeth Van Lew is a spinster living w/ her widowed mother, her brother and his family in their mansion in the tony Church Hill district of Richmond, VA. They are very unique, as they live w/ their slaves as PAID servants, even though they own them; they can't actually free the slaves b/c of a stipulation in Lizzie's father's will. The Van Lews are stunned into disbelief when their beloved Virginia actually secedes from the Union and then joins the Confederacy. Lizzie wants to do all she can to reunite Virginia to the United States.
As soon as the battles start, the wounded and prisoners of war start pouring into Richmond, which soon becomes the seat of the Confederate government. Lizzie's sister-in-law, Mary, soon enters the social circle that includes Varina Davis, the Confederate president's wife. Richmond society wonders where Lizzie and Mrs. Van Lew are, when they don't attend any of the social events or give aid to efforts supporting the Confederate military. Lizzie decides that it is her Christian duty to assist the Union prisoners of war held in Richmond. Her efforts to give them aid and comfort soon develop into a system of passing information on to other "Unionists" from incarcerated Union soldiers, and thus hopefully on to the Union military.
Many of the methods of passing information are just ingenious. I was just sure that Lizzie and her Unionist friends were going to get caught on more than one occasion. I could really feel the tension as the Van Lews watched approaching battles from their rooftop, praying that the Union military would reach Richmond and free their many POW's in Richmond's prisons.
So, all in all, I enjoyed the story of this little-known Union spy in the middle of the Confederate capital and her work furthering the Union's cause. As always, I enjoyed the author's notes on what happened after the War to Lizzie and her family. 4.4 stars rounded down to 4 b/c of my thought that the book dragged in the middle.
Profile Image for lacy white.
544 reviews54 followers
December 6, 2020
Find this review and others like it at

tw: racism, sexism, horrors of war, illness, gruesome injury, slavery

I am so disappointed with this book. Here I was, expecting to learn about a spy during the Civil War. I expected to read about the dangers, I thought it was going to be tense and fraught with said dangers. I truly had such high expectations regarding this book. I got none of that and my hopes were dashed. What to know what I got? A whiny MC who was exceptionally lucky she didn’t get arrested because all she did was argue and run her mouth like crazy.

Also, I got a history lesson about the Civil War which I truly didn’t need and it did nothing to add to the story. A good portion of the book was describing the events that were happening during the War. Sometimes they were pages long. I just didn’t understand why all that information needed to be there. Most of the time, it didn’t pertain to what Lizzie was doing at the time.

Let's talk about Lizzie because she ruined the book for me. I didn’t put much in my notes but I did put down that she was annoying which is all you need to know about her. All she did was fight with her sister in law and run her mouth. Look, I am anti Trump and will say something about him if someone mentions him. However, I also know when and where I can say these things. If it’s going to put me in danger, of course I’m keeping my mouth shut. If it’s in front of my family (who know my feelings quite well), then yeah I’m going to say something. But Lizzie just said whatever she wanted whenever she wanted. It was just frustrating as heck She wasn’t a spy. She just got other people to do her dirty work like her freed slaves. I couldn’t stand Lizzie in case you couldn’t tell.

Overall, this was a boring book and it didn’t make me happy at all. The synopsis of the book lied to me. I was promised a cool spy network with a brave heroine. Instead I got an argumentative MC and a boring history lesson about the Civil War.
Profile Image for Jean.
756 reviews20 followers
May 4, 2014
I was pleasantly surprised with this, my first venture into historical fiction. I have read some reviews that complained that Lizzy was "whiney." I did not find her to be so. I felt that Ms. Chiaverini captured her Southern gentility fairly well. It did seem incredible to me that she was able to carry on her mission for so long without detection, but she seemed quite clever and convincing. Others have commented that the book was given a definite Union slant, with the Confederate sympathizers being portrayed as unsavory characters and the Union sympathizers to be persons who could do no wrong. While I agree with this assessment to some extent, I feel that Lizzy was shown to make numerous errors in her zeal to see the Confederacy defeated, and this was nearly her undoing on numerous occasions, particularly her inability to hold her tongue around her sister-in-law. I would rate this 3-1/2 stars.
Profile Image for J.S. Dunn.
Author 4 books58 followers
December 17, 2016
3.5 to 4
Fascinating topic and an intelligent treatment. Rather than sensationalize her subject, Chiaverini devotes the first third to setting a solid foundation for the eventual spying by Elizabeth van Lew and how she avoided detection while penetrating even the household of Jefferson Davis in Richmond.

This is the kind of intelligent historical fiction that is not afraid to deftly include paragraphs of information. Details of daily life and increasing wartime privations are woven deftly as well, producing the fabric of Confederate women's existence during the Civil War ---rather than relying on an occasional maudlin excess or sobbing and handwringing to evoke the pathos of war. Thankfully there is no attempt to make the heroine into one of modern sensibility. A note after the final chapter brings the reader up to date on the balance of the heroine's life.

Closer to the 4 stars, and am off to find another title to read by this author.
Profile Image for Tara Chevrestt.
Author 27 books295 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
September 10, 2013
This is just too boring for me. 20% into the story, I sat there and said, "Well, I've read this far and I know nothing about the heroine except she lives in Virginia, she lost her beau and is a spinster, she doesn't get along with her sister-in-law, and she supports the Union."

That's all.

The book reads more like an accounting of what happened in Virginia when it seceded. Perhaps it becomes more exciting..I couldn't help but catch her "maid's" name in the beginning. Mary Bowser. Pretty sure she was a spy as well and a heck of a lot more interesting than this chick.

I pass.
Profile Image for Erin.
137 reviews12 followers
September 24, 2020
Rating: 3 stars

I'm not usually a fan of civil war historical fiction, and while The Spymistress didn't completely blow my mind and convert me into loving this genre, I didn't hate my experience reading it. My problems with this book mostly center around the main character, Lizzie, and the utter lack of character growth throughout the story. A staunch abolitionist from the very beginning, Lizzie goes on to spy for the Union Army throughout the civil war, while living in the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia. Her views never change, and her beliefs never waver.

While interesting, and certainly a part of history that I had never heard of, I don't think this book necessarily worked as a fictional story. Mainly because Elizabeth Van Lew was a real person who did put her life and fortune on the line to help the Unionists. She's certainly a fascinating historical figure, but fictionally, there wasn't a lot of room for the author to take creative liberties and make Elizabeth her own character. There were also moments where the book felt like a biography, or a historical text, which doesn't make for an overly gripping fictional narrative. I was intrigued, but I was never so totally wrapped up in the writing that I couldn't put it down.
Profile Image for Korey.
584 reviews15 followers
June 11, 2017
For a work of fiction, this is pretty dry, but I still liked it. I appreciated the wealth of detail Chiaverini provided about the war and the conditions in Richmond. This works well as a snapshot in time book. It doesn't create the sense of tension or suspense you would expect from a novel about a spy though, and Chiaverini writes in a very distant way. The reader feels separated from the characters, whose thoughts and feelings are not really discussed. We know our protagonist through her words and deeds, but we get no sense of her interior life. The other characters are even more remote than that. The characters are also pretty static. Elizabeth is the same person at the end of the book as she is at the beginning. This is the type of book that engages you intellectually but leaves you cold emotionally.

Set your expectations to "well written textbook" instead of thrilling tale of spy craft and there's no reason you can't get some enjoyment out of this, even if it could/should be livelier given the material. The focus is squarely on relaying historical facts rather than creating a satisfying narrative story out of that history.
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