Long before she was the iconic Jackie Onassis, and more than a decade before she glamorized the role of first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier was a shy student at Vassar College. She’d grown up with extraordinary privilege—she was named “Queen Debutante” in 1947—yet she was already scarred: by her parents’ messy, public divorce; her mother’s rigid expectations; her stepfather’s varying fortunes; and her father’s depression. At 20, Jacqueline set off to Paris for a yearlong program. She lived with a genteel but threadbare French family in the 16th arrondissement, spoke only French, studied at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po, attended lectures and performances, and frequented Montparnasse cafes.
Jacqueline’s transformative French year is the subject of Ann Mah’s Jacqueline in Paris. Narrated by an older Jackie, it’s a coming-of-age novel structured around the four quarters of the school year, beginning with Jacqueline’s six-week stay in Grenoble for immersion classes to prepare her for Paris.
Once she gets acquainted with Paris and her French family, Jacqueline is quickly enchanted. Still, it’s only been a few years since World War II, so deprivation and shortages are widespread, coffee and sugar are still rationed, and political uncertainty lingers as the Cold War gets underway. And WWII had a serious effect on her host family: Her French mother, the Comtesse de Renty, worked underground in the French Resistance. Late in the war, an informant turned in the Comtesse and her husband, and both were sent to concentration camps, where her husband died.
Though Mah mainly remains true to the historical timeline, she adds intrigue and fizzy romance with a speculative connection to a young American writer, Jack Marquand. Jack is a Harvard man, handsome, talented, writing for the Atlantic and working on a book, though he also seems to carry a secret, or maybe several secrets. Jacqueline struggles to sort out what these secrets mean for him, and for her.
The novel’s narration is intimate, full of layered interiority about Jacqueline’s loneliness, her changing understanding of the world and her possible place within it. If Mah’s Jacqueline sometimes feels a little too perfect—sensitive to everyone around her, to Paris’ beauty and class details, and a little too witty for a 20-year-old—it’s a small quibble. The older Jackie’s narration also helps to make the younger more believable.
Jacqueline in Paris beautifully evokes postwar Paris. The details are exquisite (for instance, the lacy appearance of thinly sliced roast beef that’s been spoiled by worms), and Mah’s writing shines in its close attention to place and sensory details. In bringing Jacqueline Bouvier’s transformative Paris interlude to the page, Mah offers readers a lovely, immersive visit to a vanished city.
CORRECTION: September 28, 2022
A previous version of this article misconstrued the amount of time between Jacqueline’s year abroad and her marriage to John F. Kennedy. They were married four years later, in 1953.