When Nora Brennan lands herself a position as nursery maid to a family in Brookline, Massachusetts, she little thinks it will place her at the heart of American history. In 1917 Joseph Kennedy is on his way to his first million. He has big plans, to found a dynasty and ensure that his baby son, Joe Junior, will be the first Catholic President of the United States.
The new Laurie Graham novel, The Importance of Being Kennedy, spans the founding years of the Kennedy dynasty. Nora Brennan, nursemaid to all nine Kennedy children, has witnessed every moment, public and private. She sees the four boys coached at their father's knee to believe that everything they'll ever want in life can be bought and the girls trained to be compliant Catholic wives.
The Second World War erupts while Kennedy Senior is the US Ambassador to Britain, and it changes the course of the carefully-plotted Kennedy family story in surprising ways. There is unavoidable tragedy abroad and unexpected romance at home, as both Nora and her favourite, Kick, find love in inconvenient places. Nora is forced to choose between the family she has nurtured around her and her own independence, while Kick stages her first act of rebellion by refusing to relinquish the Marquess of Hartington an exceptionally favourable match but for his dyed-in-the-wool Protestantism. As her father's plan to raise a Catholic First Family gradually unravels, so too does the strict notion of what it means, essentially, to be a Kennedy.
Nora Brennan's story follows Kick through her youthful heyday as a star of the London social scene, her wartime marriage and widowing, and her eventual emergence from grief to lob an even bigger hand grenade into the Kennedy compound: a passionate love affair with another Protestant, and a married one to boot.
I'm of the generation that remembers vividly the assassination of JFK and Bobby, and the self-destruction of Teddy Kennedy at Chappaquiddick. I was always uncomfortable with the admiration lavished upon this family. They seemed to me to offer nothing more than a stunning illustration of the workings of hubris and to understand why, I suspected one need look no further than the patriarch and matriarch. My researches confirmed my suspicions. The Kennedy Curse did indeed exist. It was called Rose and Joe.
Is it fair to fictionalize real people and their descendants? I believe it is, if it provides a fair viewpoint, and below stairs, which is where I've chosen to put my narrator, is a very useful place to stand. When people become self-important they very quickly forget that the help have eyes and ears. And, parenthetically, I could argue that many 'biographies' of the Kennedys have been tantamount to hagiographic fiction.
The Importance of Being Kennedy follows an accurate time line and tells the family's story from a new standpoint. I'm particularly glad to have had the opportunity to tell the stories of Kick and Rosie, two Kennedy daughters whose refusal to fit into the mould cost them so dearly.
N.B. The U.S. edition of The Importance of Being Kennedy was released last week.