Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams, by Lynne Withey

Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams,
by Lynne Withey
1981  |  Touchstone  |  369 pp
When my grandmother passed a few years ago, I inherited some of her books (as the big reader in the family, almost by default). Among them was this one - a book that my mother had given her to read with the note you'll find at the bottom of this post.

I honestly don't know why I put up with having so many biographies in my possession. I dislike them immensely. They rarely illustrate a full life, especially when it's the life of someone who lived so long ago; we are subject to what was left behind almost incidentally as opposed to recorded, on top of which the writer - who means to interpret and illustrate that life for the reader - often leaves off the least-appetizing bits and inflates the subject's importance.

I don't deny Abigail Adams her influence. She was assuredly one of the most influential women in early American history, and she definitely suffered for it. But in Dearest Friend Lynn Withey really makes it feel as if Abigail was the only influential woman of the time, which is incorrect. And while Withey does not shy away from Abigail's personal faults, she does gloss them over by focusing so strongly on her loneliness, as if that were an excuse.

And from this book, you cannot tell that Abigail and John had any real feeling for one another. The author describes letters between the two of them and often fills space by saying that John did not write often, but still insists that the feelings were strong. In 1981, when this book was first published, this might have been acceptable. In 2016, it doesn't pass muster. I would rather have just read their letters. Instead, it was just a lot of Abigail Adams feeling sorry for herself and trying to control everyone else.

She decides to add rooms to her house, but we don't get an explanation of why. She agrees with her husband's politics (Federalist) until suddenly neither of them do, and then she starts agreeing with the Republicans - but so little is said about what was happening at the time and what could have influenced that change in her vision other than a mention of John Quincy explaining something that we never get the benefit of understanding; it reads more like an outline than a true-to-life story. It's an illustration that is neither complete nor appealing and, as a reader, it is a bit of an affront to my intelligence.

One note: in the epilogue, Withey mentions that although Abigail did not live to see it (spoiler alert?)
she was the "first and only woman ever to be both wife and mother of American Presidents." In 2001, 20 years after this book was published and 200 years since John Adams vacated the Presidency, Barbara Bush became the second. Though I very much doubt that Mrs. Bush ever had to make as many sacrifices, or was ever called on to advise, as much as Abigail was. I also very much doubt that Barbara would ever be caught hanging her laundry in the east room of the White House.


Top 10 Beach Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature of The Broke and the Bookish.

I love going to the beach; I also just love sitting by the water in general. If I could safely have a kiddie pool in my apartment, I would lay out by it (but unfortunately, kicking up my heels with the sink full of soaking dishes just isn't the same!) I can pretty much read anything poolside, but here are some of my favorites:

1. Jaws, by Peter Benchley. 
Yes, seriously. I'm already semi-terrified of going in the water, so this one really doesn't do anything to make that worse. 

2. Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort-Of History of the United States, by Dave Barry
Apparently Dave Barry is not for everyone. This is not a concept I understand. He's the kind of writer that I find funnier every time I pick him up. So if you don't mind looking like an idiot cracking yourself up, this is (probably) for you.

3. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, by Lauren Willig
I've only read the first book in this series, but I have no doubt that Willig's historical flair runs through its entirety. I have to say, though, I'm a little concerned about her running out of color and flower names. Book 10 in the series is The Passion of the Purple Plumeria which just sounds awful, but then it's followed (Book 11) by The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, which sounds like something the Brontë teenagers made up. 

4. Actually, while we're on that subject - Charlotte Brontë's juvenilia (e.g. The Secret, Tales of the Islanders, etc.) which is fantastical and perfect for reading on and off while you doze by the water.  

5. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
But then, I recommend The Princess Bride for all kinds of locations. It's an awfully fun book to just lose yourself in when you're laying out. 

6. The Princetta, by Anne-Laure Bondoux
A children's epic with adult appeal. It's perfect when you're by the water. 

7. Mariel of Redwall, by Brian Jacques
You don't *need* to have read the first three books in the Redwall series to appreciate this one, but I strongly recommend doing so. Mariel is great for the beach, though, because we first encounter the title character in a shipwreck, and pirates (naturally) follow. 

8. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
McEwan is always a bit dark, but it's a great vacation read.

9. The Pirates of Barbary - Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17th Century Mediterranean, by Adrian Tinniswood 
While it's a fair distance from the classically romantic notions of pirating, it's a great non-fiction read for your beach bag. 

10. Persuasion, by Jane Austen
Thought I was going to leave Jane out, did you? Foolish mortals. Of course not. Persuasion is my favorite and, as such, I can read it just about anywhere. But the nautical undertones make it an easy to ones' beach reads. 


Collected Book Reviews (5/22 - 5/28/16)

In addition to TLG's review of Bruce Wagner's The Empty Chair, be sure to check out more from the critics in this week's collected reviews:

The Thank You Book, the 25th and final book in Mo Willems' "Elephant and Piggie" series, and which Maria Russo acknowledges as a sort of "sacramental" experience. Willems is launching a new imprint "Elephant and Piggie Like Reading" later this year. 

Smoke, by Dan Vyleta which Jason Heller cites as being Dickensian in a way, but as also managing to avoid "anything remotely resembling cliché."

Brenda Janowitz's The Dinner Party - based on Marion Winik's review ("fun premise...hilariously precise") this one sounds like it'd make a great beach read. 

Finally, rather than another review, check out this report from The Guardian on two new papers that analyze the spells in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, and their likelihood of realistic use. (Seriously, science? It's magic. Back off. Let us have our nice things.)