Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book review: American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt, by Stephanie Marie Thornton

In a novel about a famous presidential daughter who was one of the leading political wits of 20th-century America, the heroine’s narrative voice is critical. Fortunately, in American Princess, author Stephanie Marie Thornton channels Alice Roosevelt’s vibrant, opinionated, sometimes caustic disposition in a thoroughly convincing way, maintaining it across 400-plus pages.

The woman called “Princess Alice” by the Washington scene, and whose occupation was listed as “gadfly” on her death certificate, was born in 1884, the only daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and his first wife, Alice Lee, who died two days after her birth. In addition to evoking her firecracker spirit, the novel explores young Alice’s quest for her father’s affection and approval. She feels he slights her in favor of her younger half-siblings since she reminds him too much of her beautiful, gray-eyed mother (her impression isn’t wrong).

Thornton takes up Alice’s life starting in 1901, as her father takes up the mantle of William McKinley’s presidency after his assassination, and as Roosevelt’s large blended family moves into the White House. Alice’s outsize personality manifests itself in outrageous antics early on: carting a garter snake named “Emily Spinach” in her handbag, for instance, and interrupting her father’s meeting to talk about her society debut. While she never loses her brashness, she transforms into a political force of her own, soaking up knowledge to bolster her father’s (and, later, her brother’s) political career.

For Alice, the personal and political always intertwine, and as such, the story offers both abundant details on both 20th-century American politics and a strong emotional heart. As a young woman, Alice finds it hard to find true friends, and she faces even tougher internal conflict after falling in love with prominent congressman Nick Longworth, marrying him, and worrying about his possible infidelities. The novel also serves as a reminder that while history relies on facts and dates, it’s stories about people that bring it alive. Readers having only a vague idea of the Teapot Dome scandal will get a firsthand impression of how it affected Alice’s family (and how cousins Franklin and Eleanor later used it to further their ambitions), while getting new perspectives on the future President Taft – aka “Uncle Will,” her father’s affable Secretary of War. While accompanying him on his diplomatic mission to Asia in 1905, Alice – by then a global celebrity – steals the show.

Despite occasional tensions, Alice’s love for her family remains paramount, and scenes at the beginning and end with her beloved granddaughter, Joanna, bring the story full circle. Throughout, Alice is an entertaining, irreverent guide to the events in her dramatic, nearly-century-long life.

American Princess was published on Tuesday by Berkley; thanks to the publisher for sending me a print ARC.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the heads up on this book. I've always been interested in Alice's story and for sure will want to read this. I read somewhere that in her older years she had an embroidered pillow that said, "If you can't say anything nice about someone...sit next to me" (!). Wonder if that's mentioned in American Princess??

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    1. Yes, it definitely is! Hope you'll enjoy the novel - it's a lot of fun.

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