By Alice Kaplan
Univ. of Chicago. 289 pp. $26
Few students are so naive as to think they can live abroad and not be changed by the experience. In “Dreaming in French,” Alice Kaplan persuasively argues that the time spent in Paris by Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis altered the course of their lives. Bouvier solidified her love of all things French in the postwar City of Light; the effects became manifest in many ways, including her much-admired fashion sense and her work as a book editor. She was welcomed by the French as practically one of their own during her visit as first lady.
In the late 1950s, Sontag left behind her academic work, not to mention her husband and son, to live a less conventional life that influenced her as a writer. In Paris, she was free to embrace “the bohemian circles that . . . excited her artistic and sexual imagination.”
Davis’s stay in Paris in the early ’60s brought her into contact with a different kind of race relations than she was used to in her home town of Birmingham, Ala. Years later, the professor became a cause celebre in France while she was on trial for murder in the United States after guns she owned were used in a courthouse hostage-taking that ended in a shootout (she was acquitted).
Kaplan admirably lets the three women often speak for themselves, through interviews, diaries or autobiographies. The portions on Bouvier are the most fun and easiest to read, whereas the sections on Sontag and Davis tend to bog down in heady literary and philosophical theory. Besides profiling her three subjects, Kaplan serves up a compelling biography of Paris itself. She has done her part to affirm the value of studying abroad, and to that these women would say “oui.”