I picked up Alice Kaplan’s book Dreaming in French from the gift shop at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum last year (cough cough go visit). I was looking for a story that I could identify with, that would be somewhat coming-of-age-ish with dynamic female characters and hopefully no central romantic plot.–Side note: am I the only one sick to death of women being characterized by a budding romantic relationship or sexual “awakening”? Dreaming in French checked all those boxes and was even better for the fact that it’s all true. Alice Kaplan took her time researching these women and the result is a triptych of intimate portraits of the young Jacqueline Bouvier, Angela Davis and Susan Sontag during the time they spent in France. I was curious to see how these women engaged what Hemingway called the “movable feast” that is Paris. Some passages were a bit slow, but for the most part I really enjoyed this book.
I want to start by saying I really picked up this book to read about Angela Davis. I was aware of who she is now, in terms of her public life as an academic and an activist, but I wanted to know what came before that. It’s so often the case that the lives of political figures are reduced to their official decisions, I wanted to know her as a person not just a collection of stances. That being said, I don’t know if I would have finished the book if her section was first. Not that I directly dislike Susan Sontag or Jackie O, I was just unabashedly here for Angela.
The first section of the book focuses on the girl who would later become iconic First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Jacqueline Bouvier crossed to Paris via steam ship in 1949 with Smith College. Before her high profile engagement and becoming American royalty she was majoring in French and exploring her reportedly regal family roots. Here, Kaplan includes personal anecdotes like Jackie’s grandfather insisting the family came from royalty and develops Jacqueline as a scholar, socialite and sophisticated young woman.
This whole section has a Cinderella-ish feel. Fairy tales aside, the Bouvier family came from cattle farmers, but their success in industry and social status let Jaqueline live a charmed life. I think this is in part why I found her portion hard to engage with. I realized later I was taking Jackie’s accomplishments out of context but at a glance even my own fascination with waspy private schools couldn’t keep me from asking, “But what exactly did she do?” Further on Kaplan recovers by encouraging the reader to look at Jacqueline’s socializing as laying the groundwork for her future as a social-engineer of sorts. That’s what she actually did; she brought people together and facilitated big decisions whether the other parties involved were conscious of the hand she played in them or not. She later carried these skills to the White House and beyond. I was especially glad that Kaplan included information about her life post-JFK showing that being a famous wife was only one of many hats she wore.
Second came Susan Sontag, future writer, filmmaker and activist. Susan made her way to France at 24 years old but unlike Angela and Jacqueline she was traveling outside of any formal school setting. Also unlike the other young women she was already married; She left her husband and young son behind for a year in Paris, quite a shocking choice for a woman to make in 1957.
The Paris that Susan encounters is quite different than the frothy idealism of Jacqueline’s dinner parties. Susan became obsessed with learning the language through immersion; absorbing the culture through books and films;taking it all down in extensive journals tailored to every situation imaginable. She was exploring and creating herself intellectually and as a queer woman. It’s speculated that the marriage she left in America was a “cure” for sleeping with women, one that evidently did not work. (Susan continued to see both men and women romantically although she was notoriously private about her personal life.) For me this portion was the most rigorous to read, the text is peppered with literary references I knew nothing about. This could have been disheartening if it wasn’t handled so well. Alice positions the story in such a way that the citations show what Susan was interested in but doesn’t obscure or overshadow her likeness if you don’t feel like googling mid sentence. We get a picture of her strong will, attention to detail and the borderline Proustian self scrutiny that ripples through her work later in life.
And finally the pièce de résistance: Angela Davis! Like Jackie, Angela came to France for school in the summer of 1962 during her junior year of college. Upon arriving there she was already fluent in French, her major at Brandeis. Alice quickly characterizes Angela as an outstanding student. Kaplan notes Angela’s natural use of French phrases, insatiable taste for knowledge, and overwhelming cool-factor showing her sitting in the cafeteria of the Sorbonne.
The personal things are all well and good but I couldn’t put the book down when the story got to a comparison of race relations in the two countries. During the 1960’s as the civil rights movement was budding in the United States, similar change was underway in France. Former French colony, Algeria, won its eight-year fight for independence in 1962. Algerians in France were living in a world not at all dissimilar to blacks in America and the international perspective had a huge impact on Angela. Various political groups were active proponents of liberation and fought for fair treatment of Algerians living in France. Among them was the French Communist party, which she gravitated towards. The connections she made with intellectuals in France greatly influenced her future as an activist, professor and literary force. The latter part of her section is chocked full of important names, events and books as optional further reading. All of this adds up to a great view of the political climate at the time and a glimpse at how Angela would interact politically from then on.
Ultimately this book was a good read and I’d recommend it to anybody, especially the women in my life. At right around 300 pages it’s light but informative without getting too dense and you can always pick up the breadcrumbs Kaplan sprinkled throughout if you want something deeper. The personal history of these women is nothing short of inspiring and it was a pleasure to learn. Dreaming in French will be a perfect fresh addition to your spring/summer reading list.
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Originally published by FaboulsyFeminist.com