Ann Mah’s novel is a portrayal of Jacqueline Bouvier’s transformative year abroad in postwar Paris. As a junior at Vassar College, Bouvier spent the year 1949/1950 studying at the University of Grenoble and the Sorbonne in Paris.
The journey begins with Bouvier boarding an ocean liner, embarking on an experience that will change her life. As the only Vassar student, she finds herself with a group of lively Smith students with whom she will later study. This voyage marks the start of Jackie’s immersion into an exhilarating world brimming with champagne, châteaux, theater, art, jazz clubs, and quaint cafés.
She lives with a host family, headed by Comtesse de Renty, a survivor of the Ravensbrück concentration camp because of her involvement with the French Resistance. Her eldest daughter may be a spy.
Despite the expectations of her own mother, who wants her to marry soon and well, Bouvier embarks on a passionate affair with the aspiring novelist, John Marquand. As her relationship with Marquand deepens, his claims of affiliating with Communists for research unsettle her, especially when she learns his “research” is for the CIA. Jacqueline views his behavior as a betrayal of their friends, yet it sharpens her political acumen, preparing her for her life as first lady.
The narrative presents itself as a memoir, a stylistic choice I found somewhat perturbing. I questioned the legitimacy of conjuring feelings and private thoughts of real-life figures. Did Jackie genuinely appreciate the appeal of communism, or was the author taking creative license? The exchange students were required to speak French at all times, and I was skeptical of Jackie’s fluency.
I didn’t care for the forward flashes of her future life and I found bits to be boring, but the diligent research and rich historical detail, coupled with the powerful sense of place, almost transported me to Bouvier’s Paris. 3 stars.
** Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a review copy of this novel. The opinions expressed are my own.