In American Princess, novelist Stephanie Thornton peels back the layers of Alice Roosevelt, oldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. During her father’s presidency, which began in 1901, Alice was the media’s darling, dubbed America’s Princess by those who paid close attention to every facet of her life.
Alice was a woman ahead of her time. She lived large, never afraid of causing a scandal. She smoked, chewed gum, and wasn’t afraid to assert herself, even when doing so landed her in hot water.
Unfortunately, Alice’s life wasn’t always easy. She endured a difficult marriage, two world wars, and a public feud with Franklin and Eleanor Rosevelt. Through it all, Alice was determined to come out on top, unwilling to let the press or the American people see her crumble.
AAR reviewers Shannon Dyer and Lisa Fernandes read this fictionalized biography of Alice Roosevelt, and are here to share their thoughts on the novel.
Shannon: I remember learning quite a bit about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt in school, but Alice wasn’t someone I knew much about before reading this book. Were you at all familiar with her story?
Lisa: I definitely was! I found out about Alice via a kid’s book on her father, Teddy. Since then I’ve read two really fantastic books about her – The Roosevelt Women, which also covers the lives of her aunts, mother, stepmother and cousin – and Alice R., a solo bio. I love her and find her complexly fascinating.
Shannon: I didn’t always like Alice as a character, but I still found her story appealing. In so many ways, she didn’t fit into the standard mole of a high society lady. Her parents tried hard to force her to be quieter and more biddable, but she was determined to live her life the way she saw fit. Did you find her to be too stubborn, or did this side of her character work well for you?
Lisa: No wonder Edith and Teddy gave up trying to domesticate her! To paraphrase TR: “I can run the country or control Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.” Thus, Alice is one of those complicated characters who’s utterly and stubbornly, originally themselves. If that meant her being nasty to her enemies and playing tit for tat with her cheating husband, so be it. For some she’ll be a lot to take, but I liked her a lot.
Shannon: She’s definitely made up of contradictions. Beneath all her bravado, I got the sense she was in desperate need of true and unconditional love. She wanted so much to please her father, but even when he claimed to be proud of her accomplishments, I got the impression he didn’t necessarily appreciate her for who she really was.
Lisa: Poor Alice – always searching for her father’s esteem and never getting it. She sacrificed basically everything – even her marriage – to earn it and basically only got pats on the head from him. I think Teddy’s relationship with Alice was messed up from the beginning because of how poorly he processed the nearly simultaneous deaths of her mother, Alice senior and his mother Mittie (a topic the book honestly handles too lightly and quickly in my opinion), which occurred within days of little Alice’s birth. Because he never really processed it all, just shoved his negative emotions aside and buried himself in more pursuits, his new marriage and his new family, Alice was always compared to the perfect image of her mother and could never measure up.
Shannon: I definitely agree that the book didn’t delve deep enough into the deaths of Alice’s mother and grandmother and the ways they affected not only Alice’s life but that of her father as well.
We have to talk about Nick. Alice was utterly taken in by him, even when he was behaving like a complete jerk. He was constantly telling her how much he loved her, but I struggled to believe him. I found him to be incredibly self-serving and not the least bit charming.
Lisa: That was pretty much ahistorical and my biggest bone to pick with the novel. In real life, once Nick turned into a cheating lush by the middle of their honeymoon, Alice was all but done with him; and by the time he began indulging in numerous affairs, she was already in love with Bill Borah, father of her daughter, who is given his proper place in her life by the end of the novel. She had loyalty to Nick’s memory – perhaps too late considering what she did to his political career – but I think a little too much of the early novel focused on her romance with him.
Shannon: That’s interesting, and something I did not know. I figured certain parts of the novel deviated from the facts simply because that’s often what happens in historical fiction, but since I was unfamiliar with Alice’s life, I couldn’t easily tell fact from fiction.
Can we talk a bit about the novel’s pacing? The story spans a fair length of time – basically Alice’s entire life – but certain aspects of her story are kind of glossed over while others seem to go on forever.
Lisa: That’s probably the novel’s biggest problem for me. Certain segments of the story deserved way more attention (like Alice’s early White House antics). What was good was, in fact, very very good – Thornton has an excellent grasp of Alice’s voice for instance, and I loved the conflict that is eventually mended between Alice and her cousin Eleanor. But in other aspects she refrains from showing reality – Alice’s relationship with Edith, for instance, was strained right up until the day she married Nick. The weakest part of the novel is how Thornton handles Alice’s conflicted motherhood. Her relationship with Paulina is fraught and results in her duplicating nearly all of Alice’s mistakes – and in worse ways. But that only gets a few chapters at the end of the novel which feels very shallow and it just didn’t work for me.
Shannon: It’s true. I would have liked to see more of that mother-daughter bond. I wonder about point of view. I mean, the story is told completely from Alice’s point of view, and I think that was a great choice on the author’s part. It gave the novel an intimate feel, so it felt as though Alice was telling her story to the reader. Did this work for you, or would you have liked to see some other points of view introduced?
Lisa: That was indeed perfect for me; I liked the feeling of intimacy, of being with Alice and seeing her successes and triumphs and disastrous failures.
Shannon: It’s obvious a lot of research went into the writing of this book, but it didn’t have that dry textbook feel. Ms. Thornton managed to seamlessly weave historical facts into her narrative, allowing the reader to stay fully immersed. Was this your experience as well?
Lisa: I loved it too; the loose, warm sense of personal history attached to the book makes it much more readable than it would be otherwise.
Shannon: What’s your final grade? I’m going with a B+. This would have definitely been a DIK for me if the pacing had been a bit more even.
Lisa: I’m going a bit lower with a B-; extremely solid character voice saves this one, but skipping multiple important events and mashing down the import of others kept this away from DIK territory for me as well.