Book of Ages has such an interesting premise. It starts with something akin to Virginia Woolf's Shakespeare's sister theory, which says that women have not historically had the education and/or opportunities to make themselves as successful as men. It's a good baseline for the true story of Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister. Though they were both born into a large, poverty-stricken family, Ben (obviously) made quite a mark on the world, whereas Jane married very young to a ne'er-do-well, had many children (several of whom died young), struggled to manage a household when her husband was a debtor rather than an earner, and eventually had a significant role in raising both her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Ben gave her some fundamental literacy education, but while he was able to hone his skills and rise to prominence, Jane barely had time to read, much less become more proficient. Yet what little remains to be known of Jane--primarily letters she wrote to Ben--shows her to be intelligent, thoughtful, and more than a little irascible. Imagine if she could have put that intelligence to use in something other than daily survival.
Unfortunately, proving Woolf's theory doesn't take much time, and a great deal of this book ends up being about Ben Franklin and the fight for independence. That frustrated me, more than a little--if I'd wanted to read a book about Franklin or the Revolutionary War, I would have picked that up instead. I wanted to read about Jane Franklin. I'd read an excerpt of the book in the New Yorker and thought it sounded intriguing, but perhaps it was better as a piece of long-form magazine writing than as a book. Entire sections begin to feel like filler.
The best parts of the book use the few letters in existence to document the relationship between the two Franklin siblings. She clearly adored her brother, and though he rarely saw her, he tried to provide for her, helping out some of her children and, later in her life, providing her with the first stable home she'd ever had. He repeatedly asked her to tell him what she needed, and not trusting that she was being honest, he also wrote to her neighbor and pastor, asking them to please let him know if there was something she needed.
Yet in spite of this closeness, when he wrote his autobiography, he did not mention her even once. Not once. I have to say, that tidbit was a punch in the gut. But it really reinforces Lepore's--and Woolf's--point: no matter how much he cared for his sister, she just wasn't relevant in the scheme of history.
As Woolf wrote in "The Lives of the Obscure": "The obscure sleep on the walls, slouching against each other as if they were too drowsy to stand upright. Why disturb their sleep?"
I think I wouldn't have minded the digressions from Jane's (admittedly little-known) life if those digressions had focused more on other women. References are made to Abigail Adams, Anne Bradstreet, and Phyllis Wheatley, any of whom would have been a good source for deeper exploration. Instead, so much unnecessary detail about Ben just adds to the problem Lepore is writing about.