Reading History: “And They Called it Camelot: A Novel of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis” (by Stephanie Marie Thornton)

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for a good historical novel. While I mostly prefer novels that are set in the distant past, recently I’ve found myself drawn to a recent crop of historical novels set in the more recent past. One of the best authors in that regard is Stephanie Marie Thornton. I very much enjoyed her novel American Princess, which was about the life of the spitfire Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, and so I was looking forward to her new book about Jackie O., the beautiful and enchanting wife of John F. Kennedy and the queen of Camelot.

As soon as I started reading the novel, I knew that I was going to be entranced, and so it proved to be. From the first page to the last, I found myself swept up in the heady and enchanting world of mid-20th Century America, when everything seemed possible.

The novel starts just before Jackie begins her romance with John Kennedy. The two quickly and fall in love and get married, and Jackie finds herself drawn along as Jack begins his political ascent. Of course, she also has to deal with a multitude of other conflicts and issues: his powerful family, her sister and mother, Jack’s health troubles and infidelities, the strain of the 1960s and its political conflagrations. Through it all, Jackie continues to show her signature strength and durability, weathering each blow. The novel concludes with a visit to the White House, where she stands with her two children and gazes at the portrait of Jack Kennedy, poised to take on the future and all that it holds.

Throughout the novel, we come to feel with Jackie as she confronts the realities of her husband’s infidelities. (She doesn’t have much good to say about Marilyn Monroe, needless to say). Like so many other political wives, she has to work through the complicated political calculus of whether to stay with this man that she so clearly loves, or whether she should set out on her own and leave him. Ultimately, she decides on a middle course, and in doing so she radically reshapes the role of the First Lady, shaping a template that will influence subsequent women. Most notable is her decision to remake the White House into a repository of American history, a testament to Jackie’s historian sensibility.

As important as Jack was to Jackie, her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, is also a significant figure. I have always found that particular relationship to be something of enigma, but in the novel Thornton makes the convincing case that Jackie married the Greek magnate in an effort to escape from the glaring lights of the public and to provide her children with some level of security. We can’t help but sympathize with her desires.

The novel steers something of a middle course when it comes to her relationship with Bobby Kennedy, which is understandable, given that historians and biographers alike remain similarly divided on the issue. The novel makes it clear that they felt dearly for one another, that Jack’s death brought them even closer together. Whether or not they ever consummated their relationship physically is left unclear, but in the end it is somewhat beside the point. For Jackie, Bobby is in many ways the man to fill the hole in her life left by Jack’s brutal death, and his subsequent death is yet another example of the tragedy that afflicts Jackie’s life.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the novel was the way that it emphasized the fact that Jackie Kennedy was a fierce and sharp intellect. This is no small thing, considering that the dominant image of Jackie in the popular imagination is of a glamor queen. However, this is a woman who knew French, who studied at the Sorbonne, who had a passionate interest in history, who went on to become an editor at a major press. It is her interest in history that I found particularly compelling, especially as she attempts to ensure that Jack’s legacy is remembered in the way that she deems appropriate.

And They Called it Camelot also allows us to see how it is that a woman who was more comfortable out of the spotlight than in it found herself at the center of one of the most famous presidencies in the history of the United States, the glittering queen who ruled over a golden court. At the same time, the novel doesn’t shy away from the fact that her life was also marred by an almost bewildering amount of tragedy. In addition to Jack’s brutal assassination in 1963, Jackie also had to endure several miscarriages (the last of which occurred right before Jack was killed). Time and time again, however, she

And it’s not just that the novel is well-constructed. It’s also just exquisitely written. The prose is at times incredibly lush, as frothy as the champagne that the Kennedys so frequently drink. At times, I simply allowed myself to just luxuriate in the prose. Though there is something to be said for using beautiful prose just for its own sake, here it serves a greater purpose. It allows us to believe that we are truly in the mind of the First Lady, with all of her refined taste and her nuanced ways of looking at the world. Every page is a pleasure to read, and before you realize it you’re done with the book.

And They Called it Camelot is one of the finest sorts of historical fiction. It allows us an intimate look into the mind of one of the most influential and well-known First Ladies to have inhabited the White House. It’s hard not to feel a profound sense of sadness at the fact that Camelot, that brief glimmering moment when America seemed poised on the cusp of a whole new world, lasted such a short period of time before being cut short by an assassin’s bullet. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I can’t wait for Thornton’s next effort!

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