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  • Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis by Alice Kaplan
  • Cheryl Krueger
Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. By Alice Kaplan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2012. x + 290 pp., ill.

Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French neither tells all nor unveils long-kept secrets. Yet it offers an unconventionally intimate look at its three biographical subjects: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. Focusing on one formative year in each life, Kaplan dusts off letters, notes, diaries, and vocabulary journals to tell the story of daily activity and intellectual awakening in Paris. Although each woman has her own chronologically organized chapters, Kaplan deftly weaves the stories together using a wide range of cultural touchstones, from Marcel Proust to Patricia Franchini (the Américaine in Paris of Godard’s 1960 À bout de souffle). For Kennedy, Davis, and Sontag, the hybrid culture of study abroad leads to moments of discovery, some related to academics (theatre, philosophy, reading of all kinds), others to daily ritual (from the café scene to plumbing woes). Without forcing a fit, Kaplan emphasizes an invisible bond of shared rites of passage that transcend time, family background, and political backdrop. The author’s deep connection to the project is palpable, most notably in attention to detail, and across a mantra-like invocation of the dreaming reader: ‘it is tempting to imagine’ (p. 47); ‘it is intriguing to imagine’ (p. 48); ‘it is poignant to imagine’ (p. 106); ‘you have to imagine’ (pp. 223, 224). The book sheds new light on three larger-than-life women, and at the same time brings these now celebrities closer to readers who, like the protagonists and the author herself, crossed the ocean and bridged the elusive space between conjugating verbs and dreaming in French. It is as if Kaplan were speaking not only for these three young women in Paris, but for all of the women who began a second life when they spent a year in France: ‘They were in French, as we all are in foreign languages, translations of our American selves’ (p. 5). In fact, just as important as the triple biography is the book’s powerful undercurrent: a contemplation of the study-abroad subculture and its profound, transformative effect on the mind and on individual and social identity. As the book takes us back to a nearly forgotten chapter in much discussed lives, it simultaneously provides snapshots of a time when foreign travel always entailed limited communication with those back home: ‘Living on Paris time, six hours later than friends back on campus and their families at home, they would experience [. . .] an isolation from much that was familiar, and a particular form of solitude. With that solitude came the greatest of luxuries: the time to read, the opportunity to wander, and the chance to think new thoughts’ (p. 6). In the twenty-first century, a Paris year no longer necessitates the strange, thrilling, often difficult isolation and disconnection from the familiar that Kennedy, Davis, Sontag, the author, and many readers have known. Yet Kaplan’s message rings true today. Dreaming in French presents a compelling manifesto for study abroad and the ‘temporary version of expatriation it offers’ (p. 6). [End Page 280]

Cheryl Krueger
University of Virginia


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