To narrate the travails of this Mississippi-born Confederate mistress in 2018 is far from easy, so Frazier leaps what might have been an insurmountable narrative hurdle with a widower named James Blake. A middle-aged black man, he calls on Varina Davis just a few months before her death ... As the novel’s moral center, James Blake presumably allows the reader to admire this complex woman or at least hope that her empathetic imagination may not be as deficient as, say, that of her husband ... James Blake is thus heavily tasked as the black man come to instruct as well as to learn ...The flight of Varina and her motley caravan from Richmond is beautifully rendered ... Beautifully rendered, too, is Frazier’s chronicle of Varina’s youth ... Blake ... a didactic interlocutor — more catalyst than realized human being, more reflector than protagonist — does not and likely cannot counterbalance the empire of slavery Varina represents. Still, thanks to Frazier’s delicate ventriloquism, Varina Davis becomes a marvelously fallible character, complicated enough to stand on her compromised own.
Frazier’s historical research generally sits lightly on the story, almost always embedded gracefully in dialogue, a small telling incident or a sharp memory of kindness or brutality. His prose is both of the characters’ time and perfectly evocative ... This novel has much to offer those of us who are living through what Carl Bernstein has taken to calling a 'cold civil war,' but in the end it is a finely wrought novel that will reward rereading. Elegiac without being exculpatory, it is an indictment of complicity without ignoring the historic complexity of the great evil at the core of American history.
Frazier crafts haunting scenes of her and her children’s flight from Richmond via wagon through the devastated South and her morphine-hazed, funereal view of her husband’s rain-soaked inauguration. Intelligent, outspoken, and clear-sighted but yoked to an intransigent man, the real Varina sometimes feels elusive ... In her conversations with James, she proclaims 'the right side won' yet seems unable to fully grasp slavery’s ramifications. This powerful realization of its time also has significant meaning for ours.
Frazier is a superb prose stylist who elevates the historical fiction genre ... Sometimes Frazier’s considerable literary talents get in his way. His writing can be breathtaking, but Varina’s fragmented narrative hopscotches all over the place. Which is a shame, because this picaresque novel’s most memorable scenes rival Gone With the Wind (and Cold Mountain) for sheer jaw-dropping Dixie drama ... Varina the character is a fictional triumph, and the real Mrs. Davis did save Jimmie; Varina the book is more problematic. The Civil War continues to haunt.
The writing is generally clearer and plainer than in Frazier’s earlier books...but although V is ostensibly telling the story, Frazier recounts it in third person. This choice, along with the multiple flashbacks, has a muffling effect. The story feels heavy on explanation, ominous but without much sense of forward momentum, and potentially hard for readers to follow ... When a writer like Frazier sets out to retell the story of Varina Davis, and to give her a black character as a witness, the problem is not just whether he has the 'right' to tell this story. The problem is that writers working from a position of greater privilege may not fully understand the implications of their structural and character choices ... There may be a path to reparations, if not redemption, but it doesn’t lie through learning how to tell the white story in more detail or by allowing the characters to receive affection, judgment and absolution, no matter how complex, from an imagined black witness.
Evocative imagery abounds in Varina, extending Frazier’s reputation for lushly descriptive prose...Frazier’s flair for metaphor sometimes lapses into the florid, registering one or two beats too many ... Although Varina necessarily deals with America’s national schism over slavery, the depths of depravity that system of oppression put into place rarely come into full focus in Frazier’s story...But the moral culpability of the characters in Varina rarely informs any specific, compelling insight. Instead, we get bland truisms ... ultimately lacks the weight it portends.
Mr. Frazier’s superb novel is both a large-hearted homage and a sensitive reckoning of the guilt that accrues to those who 'profited from pain in the face of history’s power to judge' ... easygoing, spacious and jocular, replacing verbal flash with a calmly mature perspective on suffering. Cold Mountain will always be more famous, but Varina is the better novel, a masterful portrait of a woman who brings uncommon dignity to her remembrances, and to the lifelong work of atonement.
Frazier returns to form with this emotional and often harrowing depiction of a complicated woman. While Frazier paints Varina as a strong mother and staunch defender of her husband, he skillfully shows the consequences of her complicity in Davis’ decisions.
Varina can be read on a number of levels. Many people will enjoy the tale of a whip-smart and sharp-witted woman who nearly outran federal bounty hunters after the fall of Richmond. Others will be fascinated by the story of the difficult marriage between these two strong-willed people. On a more subtle level Varina can be seen as a reminder that a national reckoning over the legacy of slavery has yet to take place ... Varina is a challenging novel and, while not as readily appealing and as flowingly written as Cold Mountain, it provokes thought and encourages reflection on one of the most difficult issues of our time.
Focusing on events following Lee’s surrender when she and her children fled the Confederate capital, and bouncing between pre- and postwar events, this narrative approach succeeds after a slow start ... Much of what Frazier imagines is consistent with the incomplete historical record surrounding Varina, and he fills in the blanks to reveal a powerful personality that, while of her times, has much to say to us today in respect of how the impact of great events on individuals can affect the history of those events. Highly recommended for general readers as well as anyone interested in American history.
Like Cold Mountain, Varina is a novel of flight and separation ... Yet there’s a disorienting unevenness to the narrative tone, in which Varina’s reminiscences, as told to Blake in the sanatorium, are interrupted by an omniscient voice in the present tense who refers to the protagonist as 'V' when passing biographical judgment ... The non-chronological narrative becomes so complex that even Frazier seems to lose his place in it at times ... Above all, the novel inevitably lacks the big, box-of-tissues finale that provided Cold Mountain with its emotional heft, as few people are likely to be moved to weep for Varina or her cold-blooded, 'raptor-like' husband. But perhaps this is not the time and place for romance. The significance of Frazier’s novel has less to do with its potential as Hollywood fodder than its clear-sighted depiction of culpable leaders in a divided America.
Whether or not his fourth book will earn the author new fans depends largely on whether or not there’s a fresh audience for his heavily lyrical—sometimes turgid—style. While there are moments of dry humor—Mrs. Davis is nobody’s fool—this reads more like a novel its heroine might have read in the late days of the 19th century than something written in the 21st. The most contemporary touch is the disjointed timeline, but even that isn’t entirely effective. The resulting text isn’t so much a coherent narrative as a series of vignettes. Intriguing subject. Uneven execution.
Frazier’s interjection of historical detail is richly informative, and his descriptions of the natural world of the South are lyrical. While V’s emotional reserve and stoic narration keep her from becoming a fully vibrant character, this is a sharp, evocative novel.