As one who enjoys reading biographies—particularly those of significant women in our history and culture—I jumped at the chance to read Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French. Already knowing a good deal about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, I was instantly drawn to the book. Susan Sontag and Angela Davis made such important contributions to our American history that I wanted to know more about them.
I was not disappointed.
Each woman spent a year in Paris in a significant decade of the Baby Boomer generation: the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Each decade presented uniquely different environments to the three distinctly different women. Clearly, their time in Paris influenced them greatly, and the experiences and lessons learned were carried throughout the rest of their lives.
Kaplan researched not only the women for each section of the book, but the events of the time when they grew to young womanhood, why they decided to go to Paris, and how their individual experiences were directly connected to their ultimate place in history.
Each woman’s chapter has two parts, beginning with her background prior to Paris, her decision to venture to Paris, and the details of her stay there. The second half illustrates the life of each woman after her return and what became of her, personally and professionally.
Unless you’ve lived under a rock since birth, you know Jacqueline was, and still is, one of America’s favorite and most significant First Ladies. She brought her intense love of history, beauty, and art to bear during her time in the White House, finding and restoring the historic and significant artifacts of the Executive Mansion while acting as an internationally-recognized hostess to the world leaders who graced her table. Jackie was always French, in her ancestry and in her style of living.
Susan Sontag was the lesser known to me of the three women, and what a year she had in Paris! She left her husband and infant son to travel to Paris on her husband’s dime, explored the community of writers as well as her own sexual orientation at a time in her life when she was struggling to truly know herself and find the freedom to be who she wanted to be. The New Novel was changing the way authors wrote, without plot or character, and she made this style her own. Susan came to be known, first and foremost, as a significant American author and one of the leading intellectuals of her generation.
Angela Davis was a recognized philosopher and teacher when she traveled to Paris. Two significant events occurred during her time there: she learned from a newspaper article that four girls had died in a church bombing in Birmingham, her hometown, and she decided to join the Communist Party. Returning to the United States to continue her studies, she became a professor and an advocate for the American prison system. She spent 18 months in jail for her consequential connection to a courtroom shooting, also related to her involvement with the rights of prisoners. She still teaches today and has written several books.
Dreaming in French is the first multiple biography I’ve had the pleasure to read and it is unique in that regard, bringing together three very different women with one similarity, which helped to shape their influence on those of us fortunate to live in their time.