The Kennedy Debutante: A Novel by Kerri Maher

Twice I checked out The Kennedy Debutante (Amazon) (AbeBooks) and started reading but got sidetracked by more pressing reads. Flash forward some months and Amazon put the book and audiobook on sale, so I took a chance and bought them. The book is about one of my favorite Kennedys, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy. I was curious to see if her effervescent personality could be portrayed in an historical fiction novel.

From Goodreads: “London, 1938. The effervescent “It girl” of London society since her father was named the ambassador, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy moves in rarified circles, rubbing satin-covered elbows with some of the 20th century’s most powerful figures. Eager to escape the watchful eye of her strict mother, Rose, the antics of her older brothers, Jack and Joe, and the erratic behavior of her sister Rosemary, Kick is ready to strike out on her own and is soon swept off her feet by Billy Hartington, the future Duke of Devonshire.

But their love is forbidden, as Kick’s devout Catholic family and Billy’s staunchly Protestant one would never approve their match. When war breaks like a tidal wave across her world, Billy is ripped from her arms as the Kennedys are forced to return to the States. Kick gets work as a journalist and joins the Red Cross to get back to England, where she will have to decide where her true loyalties lie—with family or with love . . .”

I listened to The Kennedy Debutante, and I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it sure wasn’t having all the men sound like they had a New York accent in an attempt to nail the much-harder to imitate Boston accent. Kick and her sisters have no accent at all, and the Kennedys were well known for that distinctive accent, so I was a little let down by the narrator, Julia Whelen. The closest she got to getting the voice right was with Rose, but her version made her sound weak and frail like she was in her later life, not the way she was in the 1930’s and 40’s.

That being said, the novel was good at portraying the rebellious Kick, fighting; a constant battle with her parents and herself and her faith. I thought Maher did a good job of getting the atmosphere of pre-world war London down, and didn’t skimp on details. I thought the relationships with various family members and friends were drawn out well, like with her father or her favorite brother, Jack. All histories of the Kennedys always mention that Jack and Kick had a special bond, and when either entered a room, heads turned because of the shear force of their personalities.

The main part of the story is Kathleen’s affection toward Billy Hartington, heir to the Duke of Devonshire, a family that was resolutely Protestant and were looked upon in the community as the pillar of the faith. But Kick also comes from a very strong Irish Catholic background, and Maher shows her struggles with her faith and her growing love for Billy. Back in the 1930’s and 40’s, interfaith marriage was just not done, and you can just feel Kick wrestling with the decision, achingly so.

When World War II starts, Kick is shipped home to America with the rest of her family and it seems like she’ll never get a chance to return to England, a place where she truly felt at home. She eventually finds herself in the nation’s capitol, writing for a newspaper, a job arranged by her father. Jack is also stationed in D.C. at the same time, so there’s more bubbly dialogue by the two of them. There’s a man at the newspaper named John who is sweet on Kathleen, but she’s a good Catholic girl and is still hung up on Billy. I won’t say she strings John along, but their relationship doesn’t get very far, even though it lasts well over six months. (John eventually wrote a flattering biography of Kathleen in the early 1980’s, and that was my first introduction to Kick Kennedy)

Kathleen yearns to be back in England with all her friends (and Billy, of course), and applies to be a foreign correspondent. But that avenue leads nowhere, so she begs her father to help her get into the Red Cross and he comes through. Soon Kick is back in England and resumes her romance with Billy. Needless to say, his parents are a bit chilly to her, but that doesn’t stop the two from talking of marriage. Or should I say argue about marriage? Both of them are devout in their faith, and the issue of how any children might be raised is a big point of contention. Finally, with the counsel of a priest she’s known since her first visit to England, she agrees to marry Billy. She won’t convert to Protestantism, but because she married outside the Catholic Church, she can no longer receive Communion. Her mother, Rose, essentially cuts off communication with her because of the marriage.

Oldest brother Joe Junior is stationed in England, and he and Kick grow a lot closer. He’s a pilot in the British air force, going on bombing raids with regular frequency. He was the one, in fact, who gave Kathleen away when she got married to Billy, in a civil ceremony. Billy and Kick have little time together before he has to rejoin his regiment and continue fighting in the war. In 1944, Kathleen receives the horrible news that Joe Junior’s plane exploded mid-air when he was on a dangerous bombing mission. She asks her father if she could come home to America to grieve with the family, and with Rose’s consent, she returns. One month later, Kick receives word from her in-laws that Billy was killed in the line of action.

And there the story ends, a sad ending to a star-crossed love story. The rest of Kathleen’s story is also a tragedy. She returns to England and spends a few years there, eventually getting involved with a married man who was also reputed to be a philanderer, but promised to divorce his wife to marry Kick. He was also not Catholic. In 1948, on a plane to visit her father in Paris to ask permission to marry the man, the plane crashed into a mountain and killed all on board.

This is the 30th Audiobook I’ve listened to as part of my 2021 Audiobook Challenge.

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