three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-BlindspotLifelong friends Jane Kamensky, chair of the history department at Brandeis University, and Jill Lepore, director of Harvard’s History and Literature Program, began writing Blindspot as a birthday present for their mentor, Yale historian John Demos. They finished the novel on a dare.

The Story: In 1764, the eve of the American Revolution, Stewart Jameson, a portraitist and notorious rake, arrives in Boston, having fled his native Edinburgh to avoid debtor’s prison. He swiftly sets up shop and hires a penniless orphan, Francis Weston, as an apprentice, unaware that Francis is actually Fanny, the disgraced (and disguised) daughter of a prominent local family. Completely fooled by the charade, the normally unflappable lothario grows increasingly flustered by his attraction to the "boy" when he suddenly becomes entangled in the murder of revolutionary leader Samuel Bradstreet. He enlists the help of his old friend Dr. Ignatius Alexander, the Oxford-educated son of African slaves, to solve the crime.
Spiegel & Grau. 512 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0385526199

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"It is as rollicking as its model [William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789)] was tame, with a view of sexual matters that lands somewhere between 18th-century bawdy and present-day graphic, and a sense of place that is fully realized. … It is abundantly clear that Kamensky and Lepore had a grand time being clever, e-mailing twists of plot and splashes of dialogue back and forth between their academic offices and crosstown in Cambridge where both live." Michael Kenney

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The result [of their collaboration] is a lusty romance, a murder mystery and a bit of Americana, all rolled into one big, fat historical romp. … Like its models, written for a pre-MTV mentality, this novel takes its time. But that wordiness is also its strength, as the book allows these characters to reveal themselves naturally." Clea Simon

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Being sprightly for close to 500 pages is harder than it might first seem, and even the most avid reader may begin to flag toward the end. But what an engaging way to relearn American history!" Carolyn See

San Diego Union-Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"While this is a very smart book, it is not always an easy one to read. It shares some of the failures of the 18th-century novel, such as awkward plotting and over-the-top sentimentality." Molly McClain

Critical Summary

A tribute to—and a send-up of—18th-century melodramas, Blindspot addresses 21st-century themes while mimicking the bygone era’s literary techniques: first-person, epistolary narratives; adventure-studded storylines; and sensational plot twists, including mistaken meanings, hidden identities, and unexpected revelations. At the same time, Kamensky and Lepore skillfully capture the contrasts of early American history, particularly the colonists’ struggle to free themselves from British tyranny while blithely ignoring the growing African slave trade (Colonial America’s "blindspot"). Most critics were charmed by this witty, irreverent novel, though a couple expressed concerns over its length and overplotting. Despite the San Diego Union-Tribune’s admitted aversion to 18th-century literature, history buffs, fans of early fiction, and readers in search of a fun and clever book will thoroughly enjoy Blindspot.

Cited by the Critics

Pamela Or, Virtue Rewarded | Samuel Richardson (1740): Written as a series of letters, Pamela, a best seller of its time, tells the story of a poor maid who must defend her honor against the persistent advances of her wealthy master.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Discuss the motifs of blindness and seeing in the novel. Why do you think Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore chose Blindspot as the novel’s title? What types of blind spots do the characters in the novel experience?

2. Jameson’s and Fanny’s narratives are quite different from each other. What are the stylistic differences between them? What aspects of Jameson’s and Fanny’s roles and experiences account for those differences? Do their styles of writing remind you of other novels you’ve read?

3. Blindspot is meant to be read as if it were written in Boston in 1764. How do the authors signal the language, values, and feel of that place in time? What role do the excerpts from the Boston Gazette, many of them loosely adapted from the actual newspaper, play in setting the mood and advancing the story? Why do you think the authors chose to tell the story with both fictional elements and historical documents?

4. Not long after landing in Boston, Jameson points out an irony inherent in the colonists’ desire for freedom: “Ably do they see the shackles Parliament fastens about them, but to the fetters they clasp upon others, they are strangely blind” (p. 26). What do you think of his statement? How does the novel address issues of liberty and slavery?

5. Jameson often addresses his “dear Reader” directly. Who do Jameson and Fanny assume their respective readers to be? How do their assumptions about their audience affect the ways they tell their stories?

6. In her letters to her childhood friend Elizabeth, Fanny Easton bemoans the limits placed upon female education and ambition. What constraints shaped Fanny’s life as a woman, and does she successfully escape them by posing as Francis Weston? How different were the expectations governing American women’s lives in the eighteenth century from those in our own day? What can Jameson do that Fanny can’t?

7. Blindspot is rife with riddles, puns, and wordplay. Jameson’s speech is filled with bawdy puns, and Fanny enjoys entertaining him with riddles. In fact, the solution to the book’s mystery is found in the pages of a book of puzzles. Discuss the role of puzzles in the novel.

8. Although Jameson is technically Francis Weston’s superior, he often feels controlled by his apprentice: “Are you so blind you cannot see that you are master?” he implores Francis. Discuss the various master/slave relationships in the novel. How do they develop as the novel progresses? Did Kamensky and Lepore complicate your previous notions of this relationship?

9. Why do you think the authors chose to make the main characters of Blindspot artists? What kinds of connections do the authors draw between Jameson’s paintings and the patriot politics of the Friends of Liberty? Is Jameson’s art itself revolutionary?

10. Although the character of Ignatius Alexander—an erudite and refined African who has been educated as an experiment—may seem surprising, Kamensky and Lepore’s portrayal of him is actually very closely based in fact. Discuss his function in the novel. How well do Jamie and Fanny understand Sander’s world and his vision? Why do you think the authors chose to tell Sander’s story through Jamie’s and Fanny’s voices, and why does the doctor resist telling his own story?

11. Jameson seems just as attracted to Francis Weston as he is to Fanny Easton. What do the authors suggest about understandings of sexuality in eighteenth-century America? Do you think our society today is more or less tolerant than the one depicted in the novel?

12. Blindspot is a historical novel, but many of the issues it addresses still feel relevant today. What kinds of similarities did you notice between the political issues addressed in the novel and the ones you think about in your own life?

13. Did the novel support or upturn your previous sense of Revolutionary America? In which ways was it similar, and in which was it different? Did anything surprise you?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Spiegel and Grau. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.