Like a lot of people, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with Alexander Hamilton this summer, not because I’ve been spending a lot of American $10 bills but because I’m obsessed with the soundtrack for the Broadway musical Hamilton (eight months till I see it on stage!). Along with taking a long, slow ride through the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton, I also took time out for a much quicker read: Elizabeth Cobbs’s novel about Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton.
Elizabeth Cobbs has had the kind of luck that writers of historical fiction can only dream of. She was researching and working on this novel already before the musical came out, and if the musical hadn’t been a huge hit, let’s be honest, this would have been one more well-done historical novel about a minor love story from centuries past, and a few thousand readers would have found it and loved it, end of story. It was sheer good fortune that as she was writing it, the musical came along and became an unexpectedly huge hit, pushing Alexander Hamilton into the forefront of pop culture awareness for a couple of years. (It was probably also some good timing on Cobbs’s part in submitting it to an agent or publisher, and her publisher’s decision on when to release and how to market it — I’m sure it’s no accident, for example, that the cover art is highly reminiscent of the Hamilton poster art). Let’s face it, if someone had produced a ginormous hit Broadway musical or movie or anything else that exploded into the public consciousness about, say, Jonathan Swift in the same year my novel The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson came out, I’d probably be living a very different, or at least much cushier, life right now. As a writer, you can’t plan for these things, but you can be very, very grateful if they happen, and I’m sure Elizabeth Cobbs is.
Devotees of the musical will find a very similar story in the pages of the novel, with some differences — of course in adapting history to fiction some corners always have to be cut, but as a novelist Cobbs is able to stick more closely to historical accuracy than Miranda is in the musical. She chooses to tell the story alternating between Elizabeth’s and Hamilton’s points of view, which helps to flesh out Eliza’s side of the story. However, I was disappointed at the end that the years of Eliza’s widowhood (which lasted much longer than her marriage — she lived to be ninety-seven) are here compressed into a single epilogue-like chapter, just as in the musical they’re compressed into her final song. I realize the focus on the novel is on the Hamiltons’ marriage, but as we were getting the story from Eliza’s point of view I’d like to have seen more than a glimpse of what she did for the fifty years after her famous husband stupidly got himself shot.
The writing here is straightforward with no fancy literary flourishes but a clear focus on telling the tale. I think anyone who likes historical fiction and is intrigued by Hamilton’s story would probably enjoy Cobbs’s re-telling of history.