VARINA, by Charles Frazier. Ecco, 351 pp., $27.99.
When Charles Frazier’s debut novel was published 21 years ago, it catapulted its late-blooming author into literary stardom. “Cold Mountain” followed a Confederate deserter’s epic journey to rejoin his lover at home in North Carolina, put an American twist on Homer’s Odyssey and won the National Book Award. The movie version became a hit for Miramax and garnered an Oscar for Renée Zellweger.
Since then, the light has all but gone out. Frazier’s second novel, “Thirteen Moons,” about a white man who champions the Cherokee as they are pushed off their ancestral homelands, traversed huge chunks of American history in a prose often disparaged as overwrought. “Nightwoods,” a melodramatic Southern Gothic set in the 1960s, received relatively little attention, except for more barbs about stylistic excess.
Thank God that America is a land of second chances. Frazier’s latest, “Varina,” is a splendid historical novel just right for our time. It transforms the wife of Jefferson Davis into a symbol of grit and wit, open-mindedness and tolerance. By contrast, the president of the Confederacy comes off as rigid, racist and self-righteous. Down with one icon, up with another! Coincidentally or not, the book seems an apt text for up-to-the-minute discussions of gender and racial inequality. Book club members, talk among yourselves.
The novel opens in 1906 at a spa in Saratoga, New York, where the elderly Varina Davis is hoping to shed her long dependency on opium. She is approached by James Blake, an African-American who believes he may be the orphan slave boy she rescued and took into her household years ago. What follows for both is an eye-opening journey into the past.
In brief, astutely observed chapters, Frazier jumps from one era to another. We witness the teenage Varina marry a man twice her age, believing she will lead a placid existence as wife of a Mississippi plantation owner. Instead, she is plunged into Washington’s political maelstrom as he rises from congressman to senator to secretary of war to Confederate figurehead. Always, she’s the irreverent one, defying convention and attentive to the absurd. Hence the opium to calm her nerves, and the presence of a black child living among her own children.
As the Civil War ends, Varina, her brood and a few slaves flee southward across a ruined landscape, desperate to find refuge in Havana. That will not happen. Much of her bleak postwar life is spent in Europe or New York while her husband is in prison or elsewhere, separated not only physically but emotionally. But for James, her loving intervention will open up new possibilities.
Frazier’s lyrical, rhythmic prose is equally adept at evoking a Georgia devastated by Sherman’s March, a torrential rainstorm or Varina’s shifting moods. For the most part, he’s shut down the bombast. Occasionally, though, I did detect lapses, passages supposedly in Varina’s voice that veer into that of a word-drunk Southern novelist.
No believer in fate, Varina swears instead by the decisive role of choice. By not marrying the tutor she loved in Mississippi, she realizes, she chose unwisely. “In London,” Frazier writes, “she could almost forget the past, . . . [d]etails of her old life seemed like a museum exhibition, artifacts to study and understand.”
But the past, as Faulkner once reminded us and Frazier echoes, is never really past. For James, the past of slavery has been replaced by a new version. Riding the train to Richmond for Varina’s funeral, he’s forced to sit in the “colored car” and ponders how it’s possible “to love someone and still want to throw down every remnant of the order they lived by.”