A recent read-aloud in our home, American Phoenix by Jane Hampton Cook is a poignant and classily written book about America's ambassador couple to Russia. A portrait of history, of marriage, of dominion and perseverance, and certainly one that any lover of history would enjoy.
[From Amazon:] American Phoenix is the sweeping, riveting tale of a grand historic adventure across forbidding oceans and frozen tundra—from the bustling ports and towering birches of Boston to the remote reaches of pre-Soviet Russia, from an exile in arctic St. Petersburg to resurrection and reunion among the gardens of Paris. Upon these varied landscapes this Adams and his Eve must find a way to transform their banishment into America’s salvation.
Author, historian, and national media commentator Jane Hampton Cook breathes life into once-obscure history, weaving a meticulously researched biographical tapestry that reads like a gripping novel. With the arc and intrigue of Shakespearean drama in a Jane Austen era, American Phoenix is a timely yet timeless addition to the recent renaissance of works on the founding Adams family, from patriarchs John and Abigail to the second-generation of John Quincy and Louisa and beyond.
Jane Hampton Cook sets you squarely down in 1800s Europe and never lets you leave. While most biographies give a respectable overview of a person's life and a dash of what's going on in the world, Cook's portrait of the Adams' couple is staggering because of it's lush inclusion of everything. Medicine. Politics. Art. Famous Who's Who. You'll come away not only with an intimate portrait of the Adams, but a firm grasp of what's going on in France, Russia, England, and America during the War of 1812.
I knew a little about John and Abigail Adams, and a very little bit about John Quincy, but almost
Cook's writing style does have a couple of flaws. At the beginning of the book when Louisa is separating from her children and exiling in St. Petersburg, Cook subtly puts the reader sympathy squarely on her side with a scant dash of sympathy for John's political struggles. But as the book goes on she evens out the perspective between them--both their flaws and their virtues--and gives us an honest and laudable portrait of them both.
Cook tries to infuse her narrative with similes and metaphors that are in keeping with the era that she's writing--using them to teach readers even more about the culture and the times. Sometimes it's a bit contrived, but in the grand scope of the book that's easily forgivable. Most times it works, and works well. Occasionally Cook puts in fictional imaginations such as "Louisa might have felt this, or done this, or worn this,"--but she quickly strikes a good balance by using those conjectures to support historical details rather than personal conjectures.
I can't stress just how much detail she puts in: Russian culture, the emperor Alexander's family, and the social rules that Louisa and John were in constant fear of breaking as they tried to establish trade relations between Russia and the young America. The expense, the political jockeying with French and English ambassadors--even to the point where sledding parties with other adults were more than just a good time.
American Phoenix reads like a fiction novel, but the majority of it is true. An excellent read that will educate and entertain in all matters history, marriage, and the hearts and minds of John and Louisa Adams.