three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
By: 
Stacy Schiff
user_rating: 
0

Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

A-GreatImprovisationSchiff, an award-winning biographer, takes a gamble with this behind-the-scenes look at Benjamin Franklin’s political agenda in 18th-century France. According to Schiff, who focuses on the then 70-year-old Franklin’s seven-year visit to France, the politico’s mission was to keep the country from interfering with America during its introduction to independence. Franklin, a man known as much for his intellectual appetite as for his unusual qualities, emerges larger-than-life in Schiff’s biography. Her analysis of Franklin’s efforts provides readers with plenty of interesting material about the overarching political milieu, the shrewd diplomat, and his contribution to American ideals of liberty and democracy.
Holt. 489 pages. $30. ISBN: 0805066330

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"A Great Improvisation … is an entertaining story, bringing alive a cast of colorful characters, strange plot twists and bizarre anecdotes, which sometimes reads like a movie script replete with intrigues, ultimatums, cabals, swindles and vendettas. … Marshaling so much original information … could have made for a tedious read were it not for Schiff’s storytelling skills." Isabelle de Courtivron

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Schiff is at her best in detailing how some of the other Yankees blundered about, made silly demands, and frustrated themselves—and almost American independence as well—in the process. … Having pinpointed exactly why Americans could embrace Franklin’s deeds but not his persona as the suitor of the French, she misses how he did in fact act as a political weathervane, and football, after having spent yet another decade as the most famous American in the world." David Waldstreicher

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Schiff scrupulously researches the details of Franklin’s mission and skillfully spices up the tale with the colorful spies, stock manipulators, war profiteers, and double-dealers who swarmed around him. … Franklin, oddly enough, sometimes comes across as rather distant and lifeless, which is a shame." Walter Isaacson

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"... an impressively researched, fine-grained account of Franklin’s Paris years. … The highly wrought prose grows tiresome over the course of 400 pages and makes the complicated diplomatic maneuverings Ms. Schiff describes even harder to follow." William Grimes

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"But for all the power of the story, the biography suffers from stilted, awkward writing, almost as if written in French, or perhaps German, and then poorly translated to English. … Still, the story rises above even this flaw, and has special relevance today, in an era of ‘Freedom Fries’ and blatant anti-French sentiment." Kevin J. Hamilton

Newsday 2 of 5 Stars
"This tale of shuttle diplomacy, of courtiers and back channels, could easily be part of a historical romance. … But it is no criticism of Schiff’s work to admit that it gets pretty boring after a while, despite its great claims on our attention." Josh Ozersky

Critical Summary

Schiff, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Véra, (1999) a biography of Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, expresses her deep appreciation for Franklin in this informative biography. Critics agree that A Great Improvisation is a worthy addition to the recent spate of literature on the Founding Fathers (see below); the strength lies in her detailed depiction of Franklin’s seven-year political rendezvous with France and her true-to-life characters. A few critics faulted her for downplaying Franklin’s diplomatic achievements, and, while Schiff impressed some with her epigrams and wit, to others her storytelling felt dry. Overall, Schiff’s book adds another nuanced layer to our understanding of Franklin and the 18th-century French landscape.

Recently Reviewed

Benjamin Franklin | Edmund S. Morgan (2002): 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2003. At 368 pages, a "purposely short" biography that focuses on Franklin, the Political Philosopher, and omits much of his personal life.

Benjamin Franklin An American Life | Walter Isaacson (2003): 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2003. A more comprehensive, modern take on Franklin, the upwardly mobile innovator, businessman, and politician—and the Founding Father who most resembles us today.

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin | Gordon S. Wood (2004): 3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2004. Wood’s study traces Franklin’s transformation from a so-called "true-blue English" to the converted patriot.