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Jane Kamensky & Jill Lepore – Blindspot

August 29, 2012

95. Blindspot by Jane Kamensky & Jill Lepore (2008)

Length: 493 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 22 August 2012
Finished: 25 August 2012

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? Alyce’s fault.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 17 July 2010.

It’s a good thing the
British didn’t impose a
tax on sly wordplay.

Summary: Stewart Jameson flees his debts in his native Scotland, and settles himself in colonial Boston. Jameson is a painter, a portraitist, who has an uncanny knack for capturing not only people’s faces but their true selves. He advertises for an apprentice, and on his doorstep lands one Francis Weston – neé Fanny Easton – a young woman who has been cast out by her father, one of the luminaries of Boston politics, and has disguised herself as a boy in order to pursue her love of painting. Politics is much on the mind of the town, as Parliment is increasing taxation on goods to the colonies, and there is a growing sentiment in favor of freedom. But the same people cheering for freedom from Britain are not necessarily in favor of freedom for all, and when a notable anti-slavery advocate is murdered, tensions come to a head. But can Jameson and Weston see the truth of the situation when they can’t clearly see what is happening in their own lives?

Review: I had a ton of fun with this book. It’s a total mish-mash of a novel, part historical fiction and part romance and part murder mystery; the tone falls somewhere between picaresque, satire, and epistolary. One thing it never is, though, is self-serious: practically every page is full of wordplay and bad puns and bawdy jokes and riddles. Kamensky & Lepore can tone it down when needed, for the more serious and poignant scenes, but I should have known from the fact that the back cover of the book contains blurbs from Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, and Henry Fielding, among others, that this book was going to be more than a little tongue-in-cheek. And the excellent thing was, that no matter how difficult the mish-mash of story elements and genres makes this book to describe, they are all woven together well, making this book feel full and rich, if occasionally a little overstuffed. (But, y’know, comfortably so.)

The other great thing about this book was how well it brought 1760s Boston to life. Kamensky and Lepore are both professional historians, so perhaps it’s no surprise that they got the details right. But they really captured the tone of the time in Stewart’s writings and Fanny’s letters, not to mention the newspaper articles, pamplets, legislation, etc. that were sprinkled throughout. And, what’s more, they caught the tone of the time yet still kept it readable to a modern audience: pretty impressive. There were a few things that I thought were a little anachronistic: Fanny’s personality and decisions, for sure, and also some of the wordplay also struck me as rather modern… but on that latter point, based on the authors’ note, I think it’s my perception of eighteenth century that’s wrong, rather than the book. They also do a really nice job of working with their main theme – of looking so hard at one thing that you completely miss something else – and watching the title play itself out on multiple levels was really fascinating.

Overall, this book was by turns funny, sexy, sad, witty, and thought-provoking. But mostly just a total blast to read. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Definitely recommended if you like Revolutionary War-era literature, or historical fiction set in that time frame.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

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First Line: From the Edinburgh Evening Courant, April 15, 1764. Escaped. The fifth day this month, from the Sheriff of the City of Edinburgh, one Stewart Jameson, face-painter and libertine, on pain of being confined for debt.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 21: “Pray, do not think me idle, for I would not write the day away, with no better company than Enoch Goddard, the grubbling rumbund who came with the place, and his slip-slop wife.” – ??? Internet not helping, but the meaning is clear.
  • p. 37: “I wrap them, tightly, with strips of linen, before I dress in the outfit my master has bought for me: oznabrig trousers; a muslin shirt, clean if rough; a coarse waistcoat; and a woolen topcoat.” – A course linen cloth formerly made at Osnabruck, Germany.
  • p. 39: “Long ago, I fled that Algerine purdah, all anger and hurt and heedless pride.” – a soft striped woollen cloth; a curtain or screen, used mainly in India to keep women separate from men or strangers.
  • p. 104: “His humor is a tool, not unlike the mahlstick painters use to keep at arm’s length from a wet canvas while working on the details.” – a long wooden stick used by painters as a support to keep the hand that holds the brush from touching the painting surface.
  • p. 122: “To warm the canvas to approximate its model would require the ground gold of orpiment arsenic.” – Arsenic trisulfide, As2S3, a yellow mineral used as a pigment.
  • p. 141: ““I am to run to the apothecary, for calomel.”” – a colorless, white or brown tasteless compound, Hg2Cl2, used as a purgative and insecticide. Also called mercurous chloride.
  • p. 196: “And if I am wrong, sir? Then you shall have gained a most artistic amanuensis, and at scanty cost.” – one who is employed to take dictation or to copy manuscript.
  • p. 236: ““Thank you, Professor, but your lecture falls something short of placing that bampot by my hearth.”” – Idiot; an objectionable and foolish person.
  • p. 245: “Alexander was right; I am distracted, blinded by my own affections, and place in danger everyone around me, for I have exposed poor Weston to this fiend, this crapulous claw-baw.” – An insult, meaning somebody spends most of their time with their hands down their pants.
  • p. 249: “She wears a gown of salmon-colored lutestring, its glow subtler and finer than satin.” – a glossy silk cloth, formerly used for clothing, upholstery, etc.
  • p. 265: “As I struggled to rein in my thoughts, Gulliver set to barking, not ten yards away, at a tall man in a black surtout.” – a man’s overcoat resembling a frock coat, popular in the late 19th century
  • p. 343: ““…an executor known to the testator for naught but two weeks?” – One who has made a legally valid will before death.
  • Location 9636: “The proxemics of the past came through so vividly: highfalutin debates over imperial taxation set beside a notice hawking a young Negro boy on the cheap,reports of battles in Europe laid out next to an advertisement seeking a full breast of milk for an infant whose mother has died. ” – The study of the cultural, behavioral, and sociological aspects of spatial distances between individuals.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2012 7:54 am

    This sounds interesting but I can’t help but wonder if I’d catch all the word play and puns.

    • August 29, 2012 10:29 am

      Kathy – I think you would; most of them are not super-subtle. Or if they were subtle, they went over my head too!

  2. August 29, 2012 10:09 am

    This does sound good. I don’t usually read historical fiction set in the Revolutionary era but time to give it a try.

    • August 29, 2012 10:30 am

      Amy – I haven’t read a ton of American Revolution historical fiction – the later Outlander books, Fiddler’s Gun, and the Octavian Nothing books – but My Brother Sam Is Dead was one of my favorite books in grade school.

  3. August 29, 2012 11:12 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed this one so much! It makes me wish I hadn’t given away my copy so I could dig into it for the word play again. If only there was more time in life for rereads!

    • September 13, 2012 3:02 pm

      Alyce – There’s always the library! (Doesn’t really help with the time issue, though.)

  4. August 29, 2012 11:59 am

    I really enjoyed this one! I kept hoping I’d hear news about a sequel, but nothing yet. Thanks for linking to my review.

    • September 13, 2012 3:04 pm

      Carrie – I didn’t even think about the possibility of a sequel, but they do leave the possibility open…

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