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Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis Hardcover – April 2, 2012

3.5 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Kaplan (The Interpreter, 2005) recounted her revelatory passion for all things French in French Lessons (1994). She now offers uniquely discerning portraits of three very different yet equally trailblazing American women whose “lives were transformed by a year in France, and who, in turn, transformed the United States.” An elegant, socially well-connected book lover and “keen observer of beauty,” Jackie Bouvier Kennedy was a Vassar student when she went to France in 1949 and found her true home. As Kaplan follows Kennedy to the White House and beyond, she praises her “quiet power and uncanny intelligence” while tracking her lifelong fascination with French art and culture. Leaving her husband and young son behind, Susan Sontag landed in France in 1958 and immersed herself in bohemian Paris and the French literary works that became the foundation for her influential, often controversial writing. Angela Davis’ ardor for French propelled her out of segregated Birmingham, Alabama, to school in New York, then to Paris in 1963–64 as the only African American student in her year-abroad program. A woman of “intellectual intensity” and valor, she became a besieged activist and cause célèbre. Kaplan’s avidly researched, fresh, and astute biographical triptych reveals as much about the evolution of women’s lives as it does about how profoundly these three exceptional Francophiles deepened the American experience. --Donna Seaman


"The #1 nonfiction book to look out for this spring."
(Christian Science Monitor)

"An enduring group profile of three influential yet completely different American women, for each of whom Paris played a short but transformative role, over three tumultuous decades. . . . The much-admired Kaplan focuses sharply on three women of successive generations, providing a keen feminist-cultural picture of Paris’s enduring, if varied, impact."

(Publishers Weekly, starred review)

"A fascinating group portrait of three different women from three different generations whose trajectories nevertheless converge in one surprising yet significant place: Paris. In this lively, original biographie à trois, Alice Kaplan shows how time spent living in the French capital and learning about its culture gave each of these sui generis heroines 'her own ideas of what counted'—and how those ideas in turn became an indelible part of the American political and cultural landscape."

(Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution)

"An eloquent, brilliant, and often moving portrayal of three remarkable women whose personal and intellectual engagement with France transformed them, and by extension America as well. These intimate narratives of Jaqueline Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis feel not only vital, but also necessary to our understanding of their moral, aesthetic and political development, and just as importantly, to our understanding of each as a remarkable, flawed, and complicated human being."

(Dinaw Mengestu, author of How to Read the Air)

undefined (Patricia Hampl author of I Could Tell You Stories)

"Superbly perceptive. . . . Kaplan is a master at . . . selecting just the right aspect of everyday experience to illuminate an important point she wants to make. . . . Some books are well-written on a sentence-by-sentence basis; you leaf back through the pages to find you've underscored choice lines. Dreaming in French is the sort of book where you (well, I) draw vertical lines next to entire paragraphs. Kaplan produces some exquisite lines, yes, but she is positively incandescent on the level of thoughts and observations."
(Laura Miller Salon)

"Lively. . . . The links Kaplan makes between these cultures and these women deliver fascinating insight to the conditions and changes surging through not only these particular lives, but those of Americans in general."
(Michel Basillieres Toronto Star)

"Gossip is one of the key pleasures--but far from the only one--to be found in Alice Kaplan’s absorbing new book. . . . It's a book, to some extent, about the desirability of abandoning or attenuating one’s Americanness."

"Dreaming in French is, in essence a collection of three short, stand-alone biographies. But Kaplan is a talented historian, journalist, and storyteller, and so she's crafted a book greater than the sum of its parts. . . . An informative, well-written work of biographical nonfiction." (Boston Globe)

"An elegant and entertaining work."
(Minneapolis Star-Tribune)

"In this well-written triple biographical bite of a magical time in the lives of three ambitious women, Alice Kaplan plumbs the cultural vein that enticed a debutante, an intellectual and a political activist to the same smoky streets of Paris."

"Elegantly written."
(Jewish Chronicle)

"Compelling and well-observed portraits."
(Lauren Elkin Daily Beast)

undefined (Washington Post)

"'We will always have Paris':  Bogart's classic line from Casablanca could easily be applied to the three American women woven into a highly original triple micro-biography. Beyond their nationality, what could Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis have in common? Each of them spent a year studying in Paris and left the city transformed by it.  Documented and written like a novel, this womanly and erudite walking tour is as gratifying as a Woody Allen movie set in Paris."

(L'Amour des Livres)

"Kaplan follows these women's singular trajectories in lively and brilliantly lucid prose."

(MORE Magazine)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; First Edition, First Printing edition (April 2, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226424383
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226424385
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,009,408 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I read this book practically straight through from cover to cover. I don't mean it was light reading -- it is a scholarly work that clearly required an unbelievable amount of research. One thing that struck me was that the work of a heavyweight intellectual such as Kaplan is at the same time both scholarly and so accessible and engrossing. You don't need to be a historian or literary expert to understand her writing. I've seen this in her other books as well -- Kaplan has a gift of turning archival material into a page turner. So, I recommend it for its prose and tone. As for its subject matter: what amazingly different (yet familiar to all of us who spent student years there) experiences of Paris for the three women who went on to become American cultural icons. Their backgrounds were different, their cultural moments were different, and each one had her own Paris. Kaplan unearths details and artifacts for our analysis -- small moments in their Parisian lives -- that she pieces together into intimate portraits that are both meaningful and complex. At the same time, these three portraits illuminate Paris, gritty and magical, and invite the reader to experience it alongside.
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Being something of an amateur Francophile, I read this book on a whim, but then was pleasantly surprised to find it full of some unexpected personal historical references. The common thread for three otherwise diverse personalities, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, is the fact that they all spent around a year studying abroad in France during the formative years of their early adulthood. In 1962-63, I also spent year and a half of my early adulthood in France, not as a student, but as an enlisted soldier in the United States Army. Granted, I was not immersed in the daily study of the French language and culture as these amazing women were, but I was definitely influenced by French society through my somewhat limited contact. Alice Kaplan, the author, explains my circumstances quite clearly: "For some Americans, the early 1960s was an era of idealism and service, Vietnam a cloud on the horizon." I took President Kennedy's "Ask not what your country..." speech literally as a high school senior and enlisted in the Army in 1961, two weeks after graduating high school.

Each of this book's three subjects had their own specific reasons for studying in France, and of the three, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was the only one with a definitive French ancestry. She studied there during the 1949-50 school year when I was in elementary school, was a debutante, and moved among the upper crust of post-war French society. Although her schooling in France had nothing to do with my personal history, her subsequent years as First Lady certainly did. She was a friend and admirer of Charles de Gaulle who ordered all American troops out of France when I was stationed there (my unit subsequently transferred to Germany).
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Format: Hardcover
As a (fairly) young person, I had only received notions of the three women whose terms in Paris make up the focus of this book. I came to it not for them but because, as someone who had studied abroad, I was interested in reading stories of this rite of passage. This book is wonderfully written, and Kaplan is so comfortably acquainted with France that you feel very much in good hands. The portraits of Jacque, Sontag and Angela Davis are intriguing and surprising--it's enjoyable to meet these women before the things that made them famous. But the ultimate subject of this book is what happens when you go away; how leaving home for a strange place helps clarify or complicate your identity. For these women, that place was Paris--but for you or me, it could be anywhere, and the ideas in Dreaming in French would translate.
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Format: Hardcover
This was an interesting book. Less so for the famous personalities involved than for how the study abroad experience in France affected three very different people. By the author's choices, she has provided a window into the semi-aristocratic, intellectual and radical experiences for students in Paris in an era somewhat gone now. But though the era is gone, the experience abroad as told in the book is timeless to a degree.

There is lots of material in the book but the style of the book makes it far more readable that it might otherwise have been. The author is able to communicate lots of information without being dull or heavyweight.

Kennedy (Bouvier) probably comes across the best of the three which rather surprised me. She went to France in the worst of times (after the war) and seems to have come away with a genuine love of the culture. Admittedly though, the aristocratic schoolgirl she is portrayed as would be the character easiest to like.

Susan Sontag is not likeable at all. She comes across as selfish, immature, superficial and self-absorbed. There is the pretence of an intellectual and the reality of a "high school" mind.

Angela Davis was already a fanatic by the time she reached Paris. What she gained in Paris was a philsophical and intellectual foundation for her radicalism that made her a more serious sort of fanatic. The interesting aspect is that she seemed to have been much more the legtimate serious intellectual in those years than at any time after. It makes all the violence and useless political activity of her later years seem even more of waste. Her descent into self-parody was immortalized in the film "Network" though few people will figure it out.

The book exceeded my expectations which admittedly were low going in. Its readable and tells an interesting set of stories. Though its not likely to be appreciated by those who had bad student experiences in Europe and/or just don't like the culture.
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