Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Kennedy Debutante, by Kerri Maher

Berkley, ISBN 9780451492043, October 2018

Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy was the fourth child, and second daughter, of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. There were nine in all, and her siblings included Jack (President John F. Kennedy), Bobby (US Attorney-General, later Senator, Robert F. Kennedy), and Teddy (Senator Edward M. Kennedy.)

All of which sounds very dry. Kick Kennedy died young enough that she's barely remembered today, but her short life was packed with big events during a significant time in history. This is a fictionalized account, taking the bare facts and what we can infer from her impact on the rest of the family, and weaving them into an engrossing historical novel about a very real woman.

Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was US Ambassador to Britain from 1938 to 1940. Catholic and Irish American, he was the first Catholic to represent the US in Britain, and this was a time when that still mattered. The Kennedys brought their children with them, and along with Joe Jr. and Jack, the two oldest boys, the two oldest girls, Rosemary and Kick, were old enough to be introduced to the social world. They were presented at court, and that is a moving scene where we get the first hints of why Rosemary is a problem for the family. It's also where Kick demonstrates her grace and poise under pressure.

We follow Kick through the pleasures and challenges of being part of a prominent diplomatic family, the challenges and sometimes terrors as Europe is sliding towards war, and a beloved father who, as Ambassador to Britain, is isolationist and pro-negotiation with Hitler as that position is becoming less and less tenable. Kick, meanwhile, is trying to build some independence and pursue her own view of what's right, quietly and without telling her parents volunteering at a local Catholic church, with a pastor who is a kindly, compassionate, and forward-thinking Irishman. Father Flaherty becomes a touchstone for Kick over the challenges of the next years of her life.

She also makes friends among the British aristocracy, as she has been encouraged to do.

What her parents didn't expect or want was that she would fall in love with a Protestant member of the British aristocracy, William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, a.k.a. Billy Hartington, heir to the very Protestant, and civil but anti-Catholic, Duke of Devonshire. Their courtship, separations due sometimes to the war and sometimes to the Kennedys' efforts to divert her from this unsuitable suitor in favor of more suitable prominent Catholic men, whether British or American.

Entangled with this is the sad story of Rosemary Kennedy, a young woman with a real problem for which the medical science of the time had only the wrong answers. We see the strengths and weaknesses of both Joe Sr. and Rose Kennedy, and the complicated relations among the Kennedy offspring.

It's an engrossing story, as well as enlightening. Recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, and am reviewing it voluntarily.