Book review of The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher
This biographical, historical fiction novel, by debut author Kerri Maher, focuses on the life of Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, later known as Kathleen Cavendish, the Marchioness of Hartington. Before she became a Marchioness, Kick was the fourth child and second daughter, of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, who were also the parents to President John F. Kennedy, and his brother Robert F. Kennedy. While these two Kennedys later were in the spotlight across the world for their political activities (and subsequent assassinations), much less about Kick is remembered today. In this book, Maher works to correct this oversight, and remind us of what this woman could have been, had her life not been cut so short. (Thanks for the free book, @PRHGlobal / @prhinternational)
Being old enough to remember JFK’s assassination, the Kennedy family was a large part of my political upbringing. I remember that even after he was killed how people still discussed what might have been, had this Catholic continued to stay in office for what probably would have been two full terms. With this in mind, I very much appreciated the way Maher included Kick’s Catholic upbringing and her devotion to her church, without ever making it sound preachy. Being Catholic was simply part of who Kick was, nor more or less than anything physical or intellectual about her. The fact that it proved to be an obstacle to her being with the man she fell in love with, was more to her credit than her detriment. Furthermore, William “Billy” Cavendish’s being a Protestant was as equally important to him and his family, but that never diminished Kick in his eyes – or at least that’s how Maher portrayed him. If this had been a work of total fiction, you could say that it was the classic “boy meets girl” plot, but with a whole lot of the “boy loses girl” in it, despite the fact that Maher focused solidly on it being a “girl meets boy” story.
Maher also impressed me with the writing style here. While I found a level of stiffness to the style, this came across mostly when Maher was talking about Kick being Catholic, and with her relationship with her mother. In contrast to that, when Maher wasn’t describing those parts of Kick’s life, the style felt much livelier and more emboldened, which matched Kick’s rebellious side of her personality. When things were going well for Kick, there was a lightness to the language that contrasted with the grayer sections of sadder, more difficult times. However, even the descriptions of the dreary parts of living through war, came alive with Kick’s determined demeanor, which added to the three-dimensional portrait of Kick. From how Maher described her, it was no wonder Kick fell in love with England, the land of “stay calm, and carry on,” because Maher surely shows that this was something that Kick was unwilling to let go of, even in the face of adversity. It was also interesting to see how Maher modulated her prose to match the action of the book.
The action of this book covers when Kick “came out” to society, not in the US, but in the UK while her father was the US Ambassador there. This means that Kick was presented to the King and Queen, and came of age just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Maher then goes into detail about the ensuing years of the war’s outbreak in Europe, the family’s return to the US, the involvement of America in the war, and Kick’s return to England, and Billy, of course. Throughout this, Maher never loses sight of her protagonist, and despite all the (somewhat annoying) “name-dropping” of the many well- and lesser-known people in Kick’s orbit, on both sides of the ocean. In this way, we get a fully intimate look at this woman, and that made her not only lovable, but ultimately admirable, which is a testament to Maher’s talent.
If I had to point to one thing that proved why I enjoyed this book, it would have to be the death of Joe Jr. in the war. I already knew full well that the beloved, first-born son of the Kennedys died in battle, so I was actually anticipating that part of the novel. What surprised me – in a good way – was how Maher had built up the relationship between Kick and Joe Jr. so carefully that when I read about how she found out about his death, I actually started crying, almost as if I wasn’t expecting this to happen! To evoke that kind of emotion from a reader in such a situation is truly a tribute to Maher’s ability, particularly with a debut novel. Moreover, I also admired how Maher didn’t stoop to obvious foreshadowing of the other tragedies in Kick’s life or the Kennedy family, and allowed us to see a woman who could envision a long and happy future for herself. As you can see, I can’t find much to fault with this novel (except for the “name-dropping” bit), and I’m thrilled to have gotten to know this very impressive, but practically forgotten, Kennedy. That’s why I’m going to warmly recommend it and give it a full five stars (and I will certainly look forward to whatever Maher writes next).