Few of us can claim to be the authors of our fate. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy knows no other choice. With the eyes of the world watching, Jackie uses her effortless charm and keen intelligence to carve a place for herself among the men of history and weave a fairy tale for the American people, embodying a senator’s wife, a devoted mother, a First Lady—a queen in her own right.
But all reigns must come to an end. Once JFK travels to Dallas and the clock ticks down those thousand days of magic in Camelot, Jackie is forced to pick up the ruined fragments of her life and forge herself into a new identity that is all her own, that of an American legend.
Stephanie Marie Thornton delves into the world of American politics once again for her novel And They Called It Camelot which features the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis who is one of history’s most iconic figures. Therein lies the problem because if you are at all familiar with the Kennedy clan then you will learn nothing new and will discover a rather sanitised tale perpetuating the Camelot myth of the title. The novel begins with a quick excursion through Jackie’s early years leading up to her eventual meeting with the charismatic Jack Kennedy who is beginning to make a name for himself in political circles. Jack and Jackie are instantly attracted to each other and the relationship is encouraged by Joe Kennedy as he recognises Jackie has all the attributes required to be the perfect political wife. The wedding takes place on 12 September 1953 and gives Jackie the first glimpse of what her life will be like in the media spotlight.
The first few years of their marriage are tough as Jack’s health deteriorates from a combination of Addison’s disease and a debilitating back problem which has to be kept hidden from the public so it doesn’t affect Jack’s chances of regaining his seat in the Senate. As Jack’s health improves, the couple experience further setbacks when Jackie’s first two pregnancies end in a miscarriage and the stillbirth of a daughter. When Jack resumes his campaigning, Jackie also becomes increasingly aware of her husband’s infidelity and decides to accompany him as a means of preventing it. The extent of Jack’s affairs are not explored in any great detail, however many of these affairs were with women who were on his or Jackie’s staff and are likely to have caused Jackie a great deal of pain.
Once Jack is elected president, Jackie is keen to find something for herself and embarks on a massive restoration project in the White House which ends with her hosting a television tour watched by more than 56 million viewers. Jackie’s time as First Lady is well documented with the author careful to show she was more than a pretty bauble on her husband’s arm, however their days in the White House are glossed over with few details on Jack’s policies and more on Jackie’s official visits abroad. There is no mention of Jack’s increasing health problems or his growing dependency on narcotics to keep him functioning. Of course, Kennedy’s time in the White House was destined to be a short one and there is a lot of foreshadowing going on which is both understandable and annoying at the same time. Yes, we know it’s all going to end horribly.
After the assassination, Thornton faithfully recounts the shattering affect it has on Jackie and the aftermath is genuinely heartbreaking as it brings to mind those famous pictures of a veiled Jackie and John Jr saluting his father’s coffin. Jackie’s closeness with Bobby Kennedy is portrayed as two people mourning the loss of a loved one with implications it could have been more, however the author simply states in the afterword she wants the reader to make up their own mind. As Jackie is drawn back into the political world by Bobby’s presidential campaign, the foreshadowing begins again as Jackie fears her brother-in-law is being too reckless with his safety. Bobby’s assassination is the last straw for Jackie as she grasps Aristotle Onassis’s proposal so she can escape America for the sake of her children.
The final chapters meander tediously through Jackie’s disastrous marriage to Ari and the alleged curse she brings down on them all. The story ends with Jackie attending the dedication of the John F Kennedy Library with her children and professing to be finally content with herself. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis died of cancer on 19 May 1994 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to her first husband.
I usually enjoy Stephanie M Thornton’s explorations of female historical figures but I struggled with this book and I think it is partly due to the fact the author had to condense so much of Jackie’s life into one novel. Jackie had a rich life, albeit one with a lot of tragedy, but it feels like some events were skimmed over quickly in an effort to move on to the next one. There’s also the fact that Jackie’s story is still so familiar to most people, even decades later, and it feels like retreading old ground. The one relationship in the novel that did intrigue me the most though was the one between Jackie and her younger sister, Caroline Lee Bouvier, who lived an equally colourful life.