Thursday, March 18, 2010

Book Review: "Mrs. Adams in Winter"

Michael O'Brien's Mrs. Adams in Winter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) is the gripping story of Louisa Catherine Adams' forty-day trek across Europe in February-March 1815, from St. Petersburg to a rendezvous with her husband (John Quincy Adams) in Paris. O'Brien has meticulously retraced Adams' journey, using not only her later memoirs but also letters, guidebooks and other evidence (useful in certain cases where Mrs. Adams' memories weren't entirely accurate). O'Brien outlines the modes of travel, customs and traffic regulations, local currencies and scenaries LCA likely experienced, as well as providing fascinating details about where she likely stayed, who she encountered during the trip, &c.

But this is much more than a travelogue. O'Brien takes various opportunities during the trip to diverge from the narrative (sometimes at length) and look forward and back in time through Louisa's life, exploring her family history, her complicated and often difficult courtship and marriage with John Quincy Adams and the overall dynamic of marrying into the Adams family. LCA suffered perhaps even more trials and tribulations that most women of her time, living for long stretches in foreign places, in forced separation from some or all of her children and relatives, suffering through multiple miscarriages, plus the death of her only daughter. The trial represented by this journey across war-ravaged Europe with only a young child and elderly servant (plus various others at stages along the way) was only one of a great many, and she was forced to make decisions that, she knew, could easily have cost her life and that of her precious child.

The challenges and dilemmas were real: cross the ice-blocked river? push on through the night in the face of dangerous roads and possibly untrustworthy guides? Keep going or change course when faced with the sudden tumult of Napoleon's return from exile in the waning days of the trip?

In presenting the story the way he has, O'Brien took something of a risk himself, but he pulls off the gambit nicely, tempering the monotony of the road with stories of court life, family struggles, and daily existence for a spirited woman of her times.

As Woody Holton recently did for LCA's mother-in-law in Abigail Adams, Michael O'Brien does here for Louisa herself. A fine book indeed.

[Note: in the interests of full disclosure, Mr. O'Brien did much research at my place of employment, and acknowledges several of my coworkers for their assistance with the book. Also, please note that the author will be speaking at MHS at 6 p.m. on 31 March, about this book].