Jackie and Maria: A Novel of Jackie Kennedy & Maria Callas by Gill Paul

After doing a little digging, I wondered why Gill Paul hadn’t fallen on my radar earlier. She’s written historical novels about some of my favorite subjects: the Russian Revolution, Wallis Simpson, the Titanic, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s love affair. So, depending upon how much I liked Jackie and Maria (Amazon) would help me decide whether to read her other books. The buzz about the book was good, so that was encouraging.

From the publisher: “Jackie Kennedy was beautiful, sophisticated, and contemplating leaving her ambitious young senator husband. Life in the public eye with an overly ambitious–and unfaithful―man who could hardly be coaxed to return from a vacation after the birth of a stillborn child was breaking her spirit. So when she’s offered a holiday on the luxurious yacht owned by billionaire Ari Onassis, she says yes…to a meeting that will ultimately change her life.

Maria Callas is at the height of her operatic career and widely considered to be the finest soprano in the world. And then she’s introduced to Aristotle Onassis, the world’s richest man and her fellow Greek. Stuck in a childless, sexless marriage, and with pressures on all sides from opera house managers and a hostile press, she finds her life being turned upside down by this hyper-intelligent and impeccably charming man…

Little by little, Maria’s and Jackie’s lives begin to overlap, and they come closer and closer until everything they know about the world changes on a dime.”

The book begins in the mid to late 1950’s, when Jack Kennedy has already made the decision that he’s going to run for president some day. Jackie is pregnant with a baby that will ultimately be stillborn, and she’s unsure she wants to continue in a marriage that consists of politics all the time and extramarital affairs.

At about the same time, opera star Maria Callas meets Aristotle Onassis. Even though both are (unhappily) married, there’s an undeniable attraction between the two. Soon, they become lovers. Both don’t believe in divorce, but their love for each other is so strong that they consider how to dump their spouses and get properly married in the eyes of the Greek Orthodox Church. Well, that’s how Maria sees it, anyway.

Onassis is also playing around with Princess Lee, Jackie Kennedy’s sister, and that’s how Jackie gets invited to rest and relax aboard the Christina, Onassis’ giant yacht. The Kennedys don’t care much for Onassis because of his business dealings in America and subsequent criminal charges that Onassis gets cleared of, but they figure if Jackie keeps the visit on the down-low, it will be all right.

Jackie and Maria alternates between Maria and Jackie’s parallel lives, often intersecting yet rarely meeting. (In the historical notes, the author explains that to most people’s knowledge, Jackie and Maria never actually met). Jackie is the dutiful wife of the man who wants to be, then becomes president, and the mother of two living children. Maria is the unhappily married opera star, the best in the world, managed by her much older husband who does not desire her anymore, except to make more money.

Sometimes I get frustrated when stories go back and forth from differing points of view, but I didn’t feel that way when reading Jackie and Maria. The story flowed nicely, and even though, for the most part, I knew the outcome of the love triangle, it was still compelling reading. I know now I have to pick up a biography of Maria Callas, of whom I knew the least about, because her life seemed fascinating.

I really appreciated the lengthy historical notes in the back. While I’ve read over 50 books on the Kennedys, I didn’t know as much about Callas or Onassis, and the notes cleared up what was fiction and what was non-fiction in the book.

I will definitely read more of Gill Paul’s work after having such a satisfying experience reading Jackie and Maria. This is historical fiction done right.

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