There’s a reason marriage is such a preoccupation of fiction. In the real world, we can never see inside the black box of another couple’s shared life. Thank goodness for novels, which allow us to imagine our way inside instead, to explore the apparent contradictions and wonder how the pair came to be — and how they endured.
Take the Kennedy marriage. On the one hand was the glittering glamour and idealized Camelot of it all. On the other was the president’s well-known, highly public affairs. What explains it? And how did Jackie, a woman of such dignity and poise, come to tolerate this reality?
The ingenuity of Louis Bayard’s new novel, “Jackie & Me,” is that it doesn’t try to penetrate the black box of the Kennedy marriage by writing about it directly. Instead, Bayard seeks an answer by focusing on the before: the years when Jack and Jackie were still two distinct individuals, a young man and a younger woman navigating their ways through Washington.
The story begins in 1952, when Jacqueline Lee Bouvier is invited to a friend’s cocktail party in Northwest D.C. The star of the evening is the handsome congressman from Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who makes an immediate impression on the women in attendance. “The room had been conquered in advance,” Bayard writes. “Hands had extended, lips had parted.” Jackie hangs back, dismayed by the assumption that she, too, is meant to flock and fawn. Educated at Vassar and the Sorbonne and George Washington, Jackie may only be 22 years old, but she knows herself, and she has no desire to be one among many.
And yet: Sparks of romance fly! Or, at least, a version of romance. The future president perceives Jackie’s assets: not only her loveliness but also her good family name, her complementary Catholicism. Jack wants to keep her interested — and keep her off the market for other men — but he’s too busy (with Congress, with other women) to do this by himself. And thus we meet Lem Billings.
Lem, Jack’s oldest friend from Choate and his accomplice in courtship, is the narrator of “Jackie & Me.” With the wistful frame of retrospect, Lem describes escorting Jackie around town on Jack’s behalf, taking her to museums, movies and restaurants through the spring and summer of 1952. Lem and Jackie share a natural affection, but it’s purely platonic: Lem is gay, which is a large (albeit unspoken) part of the reason Jack trusts him with Jackie.
“Jackie & Me” is a poignant, late-summer-afternoon kind of novel. There is a sweet, timeless joy in Lem and Jackie’s shared scenes — riding the Ferris wheel, cracking silly jokes — and the pages turn easily, even if the tension never quite reaches more than a low simmer. These are two central characters who are, for the most part, stuck in a holding pattern, subject to the whims of another.
Bayard thoughtfully explores the question of what it means to repress one’s own desires, to shape one’s life and identity around another person. Lem has always been enamored by his friend Jack, although his loyalty doesn’t necessarily mean naivete. When asked to keep an eye on Jackie, Lem puts it to Jack bluntly: “If you’re going to send me on a secret mission, I need to know who my spymaster is.” Jack himself? Or is it “the boss man in Hyannis? Who am I working for? To what end?”
To what end? Jack is equally blunt: “Dad thinks I can’t get elected if I don’t have a wife.”
Bayard captures his characters with deft economy (Jackie, on her first visit to Hyannis Port: “To make sense of her three days and two nights with the Kennedys, she had to come at them like Margaret Mead in a pith helmet”). We see how Lem admires Jackie, admires her culture and refinement. We also see how, as he strings her along on Jack’s behalf, he feels increasingly guilty. Lem is perfectly aware of his friend’s sexual appetites and how those appetites are destined to continue, even after marriage. He’s torn. He wants to serve Jack, but he also wants to protect Jackie.
A quibble: Lem’s pervasive guilt could imply that he is responsible for Jackie’s position, that he manipulated her into a certain outcome. But is Jackie, in fact, so pliable? Jackie, it seems to me, is far too smart not to see precisely what is happening. She is cultured and refined, yes, but a woman who loves art and literature can also be a woman with matter-of-fact ambitions, willing to make pragmatic accommodations. There is a way in which “Jackie & Me” denies the future first lady these darker possibilities and, in that, denies her true complexity.
None of this, though, ultimately detracts from the sheer enjoyability of this novel. “Jackie & Me” is a story perfectly tuned to our ongoing fascination with the Kennedy marriage — and a novel, like Jackie herself, with charm to spare.
Anna Pitoniak is the author of “The Futures,” “Necessary People” and “Our American Friend.”
Jackie & Me
By Louis Bayard
Algonquin. 352 pp. $28
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