"The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: A Novel"
(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie MAY 1, 2006)
In the author's note at the end of The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: A Novel, Ruth Francisco states up front that this is definitely a work of fiction. Although most events which take place within these pages have a basis in historical fact, they have been "filtered through Ms. Francisco's imagination." She tells her readers she "approached Jackie's fictional persona as an actor approaches a new role...by writing in her character's voice and imagining her thoughts and feelings." Obviously, her goal was to portray a three dimensional woman. She succeeds brilliantly!
Now, I am a confessed Jackie groupie - but a respectful one. Although I used to see her from time to time on the streets of NYC, I would never have approached her, especially knowing how important privacy was to this most private of women. I have admired Mrs. Kennedy since I was in 8th grade and so hoped that Senator John F. Kennedy and his Jackie would win the 1960 presidential election and become our first royal family. Yes, I was very young when Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy became First Lady of the United States...but I vividly remember watching her husband deliver his inspiring inaugural address on TV and later, that same evening, watching the news as photographers followed this glamorous young couple to document their victory for posterity as they made the rounds of Washington D.C.'s celebratory balls. This was a first - American royalty. And Jackie was a glorious young queen. She was just 31 years-old. I was a starry-eyed kid.
In the intervening years, with all the tragedy that has befallen the Kennedy family, I mourned with them, truly mourned. I have read various bios of Jackie and Jack, of RFK, and Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the patriarch - some scholarly, some lurid. We as a nation were so much more innocent back in the early 1960s. What did we know of JFK's illnesses ... his obsession with women, the painkillers and meds, the heartbreak experienced by the loving and capable young wife and mother who was also the very public First Lady of the United States? What did we know of the late blooming love that flowered between Jackie and her husband...alas...too late?
Jacqueline Kennedy, the woman who brought culture, sophistication, elegance, savoir faire to the White House and the country, was always an icon to me - but never quite real. Many times I tried to align what I knew to be factual incidents from her life with the smiling, poised woman who graced the pages of newspapers, magazines and TV screens. Ruth Francisco, to my delight, has brought Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to life on the pages of The Secret Memoirs. Fiction or not, I get a much more realistic feel for who she was as a person, a woman, not just what she represented. And I like and admire her more for knowing.
The author writes that her intention in writing this book was not to violate Jackie's privacy - but "to get a sense of the woman behind the myth, the human behind the icon." I thank her for doing just this and doing it well, tastefully, with superb writing. But it finally comes down to a matter of taste, doesn't it? There are many who will pan this novel because they will believe it is intrusive, vulgar - that autobiographical fiction, should never have been attempted with this dignified protagonist. I respect those who feel thus. I don't, and easily give the book a 5 STAR (of 5) rating.
The story is told in the first person with Jacqueline, "Jacks," as narrator. We become acquainted with her as an adolescent. Pulled between her beloved father Black Jack, who became increasingly dissipated with alcohol, age and too many women, and the ever materialist, pragmatic Janet, her controlling mother, the young girl longed to be on her own - to travel. But money was always an issue. Her competitive relationship with sister Lee is fascinating, as are her years of freedom and study at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Obviously, extensive parts of the novel deal with her courtship and marriage to JFK. The author does a realistic job of keeping Jackie in character as she copes with what every woman fears most - a philandering man. She does so with elan and a sense of humor. I did not feel like a voyeur while reading any of this...and the novel IS unputdownable.
The assassination, the funeral, Jackie's relationships with RFK, Aristotle Onassis, her beautiful children and the loving care she bestows upon them, her own neuroses and fears...everything is here and written in a most credible manner.
Some high points: Jackie in Paris as First Lady, when she translates for Jack and DeGaulle and is a major hit with the French - a wonderful personal victory; Jackie's dealings with Marilyn...interesting and it jives with biographies I have read.
Francisco's prose is outstanding and although this is a work of fiction, it rings true. The characters, especially Jackie, are alive on the page. Most of the dialogue is excellent. When she reproaches Jack for messing-up so many women, (after Marilyn Monroe dies), he says, "I've never asked a woman to do something she doesn't want to do. I don't want to discuss this anymore, Jackie." Jackie, to herself, "I feel ashamed, for Jack, for myself. I've won the battle, but not the war. Why can't I accept his philandering as some kind of cortisone-induced stress relief? I think of what they say about the Blonde, how she's slept with hundreds of men, not for money, but out of a pitiful desperation for love. Is that it for Jack? Is it power? Sadism? I want to pound his chest, to demand to understand."
There are occasional inconsistencies, fatuous remarks, that distract. For example, when Bobby tells Jackie that LBJ will not be running for a second term, Jackie asks, "Why not?" To which Bobby responds, "Who in the hell cares? It leaves the pathway open for me." As if they did not already know the events leading up to Johnson's decision and the political opportunities that then opened for RFK. Overall, however, this is a real winner.
Unless the thought of reading a novel about Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis disturbs you - The Secret Memoirs are not to be missed.
- Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Confessions of a Death Maiden (September 2003)
- Good Morning, Darkness (September 2004)
- The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (February 2006)
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About the Author:
Ruth Francisco is a graduate of Swarthmore College, she studied voice and drama in New York City and then moved to Los Angeles to work in the film industry. She currently lives in L.A.