Review of “Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams” by Louisa Thomas


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Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams
by Louisa Thomas
512 pages
Penguin Books
Published: April 2016

Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams is Louisa Thomas’s biography of the nation’s first foreign-born first lady. Thomas is a journalist and author whose previous book “Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, and Faith in World War I” explores the conflict her family experienced during the First World War.

Fans of the U.S. presidency are likely to recognize Louisa Catherine Adams (1775-1852) as one of our nation’s more interesting and spirited first ladies. She was incredibly insecure but curiously indomitable, and often fragile (physically and emotionally) but with a remarkably steely resolve. Born in London under interesting circumstances, her sheltered upbringing afforded her little education and limited opportunity. But then she met and married John Quincy Adams.

In this engaging biography of Louisa Adams, biographer Louisa Thomas has painted a wonderfully vibrant portrait of a woman who was marvelously human– and happened to marry a man whose career would take them across the globe. Written in an easy, accessible, unpretentious style, this biography is richly-sourced and surprisingly captivating.

If the essential role of a biography is to allow the reader to deeply understand a biographical subject – including her strengths, weaknesses, personality quirks, most important relationships and how she views, reacts to and evolves within the world around her…then Thomas’s 455-page narrative is extremely successful.

One of the best aspects of the book: its revelations regarding Louisa’s relationships with her husband (the prickly John Quincy Adams), her mother-in-law (the infamous Abigail Adams) and her father-in-law (John Adams). The evolution of these three relationships is fascinating to witness and each is described in way that beautifully teases out the nuances of the individuals involved.

Many readers will also appreciate the book’s deeper insight into the persona of John Quincy Adams. Without quite being a biography of the sixth president, this book reveals a great deal about him: his peculiar personality, his obsessive dedication to public service, his shortcomings as a spouse and how he and Louisa grew to understand each other’s limitations. Readers without previous exposure to JQA will receive a good introduction to his public life…and an excellent introduction to his personality.

The most revealing part of the book, however, may be the two chapters dedicated to Louisa’s daring 2,000-mile journey from St. Petersburg to Paris in 1815. Her husband left her and her youngest son in Russia when a diplomatic mission necessitated his sudden move. The details of her harrowing 40-day journey to rejoin him, across a ravaged landscape and through waves of soldiers retreating from Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, will capture every reader’s attention.

At times, however, this biography lacks sufficient biographical “gravitas.” As compelling as it is, this book rarely exudes the scholarly sophistication of more ponderous biographies and occasionally feels…almost frivolous. And, regrettably, the biography is entirely devoid of portraits, illustrations or maps which could have added important insight and context.

Overall, however, Louisa Thomas’s biography of Louisa Adams is an extremely readable and extraordinarily engrossing journey through the life of one of our most interesting first ladies. As an introduction to John Quincy Adams this book is surprisingly solid. But as a story of Louisa Adams’s flaws and insecurities, her compromises and conduct, and her evolution during fifty years of marriage, it is often exceptional.

Overall rating: 4½ stars