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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

American Icon Influences an Ordinary Life : JACKIE BY JOSIE by Caroline Preston; Scribner $22, 314 pages

March 14, 1997|FRANCESCA STANFILL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Greeks had Hera, Aphrodite and Athena. We have Jackie. As is true of all bona fide "deities," no last name is necessary: just Jackie. Take, for example, the eerie cover line of a recent issue of New York magazine, written as if she were still alive: "Having It Made: The makers of Jackie's sunglasses. . . ." Jackie's life, her dicta, and her raiment have been analyzed, deified and reviled in forums both sacred and profane--from college professors (Wayne Koestenbaum in "Jackie Under My Skin") to Kitty Kelley ("Jackie, Oh!") The final step of the canonization of this 20th century icon--Virgin Mary to some, Mary Magdalene to others--is the fact that Jackie now emerges as a character in fiction.

So it is in this charming and refreshingly unperverse contemporary novel, "Jackie By Josie." While I was prepared not to like Caroline Preston's first novel (still another writer trading on That Name), I came away enchanted. Preston has a sly comic gift and a talent for the ironic that seldom fails, partly because she has chosen to write about worlds she clearly knows well (academia, motherhood, family intrigues, the reality of marriage). There are moments when the voice reminded me of Nancy Mitford's in the early novels--the antic touches and a certain Mitfordian way of presenting the foibles of an eccentric (New England) family.

Here's the story. Josephine Trask, a graduate student in Providence, R.I., is working on a dissertation on an obscure, Emily Dickensian poet, Ada Silsbee (a.k.a. the "Songbird of Chester"). Josie has a young son with her husband, the callow Peter Stadler, whose own more accessible studies focus on pop culture. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has just died at the opening of the book: eulogies are being intoned, vulture-like biographers are rushing in. Among the last group is Fiona Jones--Kitty Kelley crossed with Barbara Cartland--who, through a fellow graduate student, asks Josie to help research a new biography of JKO. Josie hesitates at first, but the lure of $10,000 over the summer, and the encouragement of her pragmatic husband, finally persuade the highly likable Josie to forsake lofty literature, at least temporarily, for crass commerce.

Josie takes her son Henry to live at her mother's downwardly mobile WASP house in a small town in Massachusetts, while she embarks on the research at the nearby Kennedy Library; in the meantime, Peter drives cross-country, to Berkeley, to begin his own adventures, both academic and otherwise. What happens during the course of the summer--her mother's love affair with an ex-convict, Josie's discoveries at the library and the impact of the Jackie research on Josie's life--lies at the core of the novel.

Preston is adept at creating funny characters, and doing it swiftly, often through dialogue. The conversations between Josie and biographer Fiona Jones, for instance, are hilarious, as are the descriptions of Fiona's books. (Says Fiona: "They've been on the best-seller list . . . 'Picasso--the Magnificent Monster'; 'Queen Elizabeth--the Regal Burden.' My last one was 'Vivien Leigh--the Winds of Madness.' ")

In the end, however, it is the juxtaposition of Josie's imaginings with the reality of her own life that provides the book not only with humor but with something rarer--heart. This is particularly true as Josie works through her feelings toward her mother's romance with the ex-convict, a man with a heart of gold. Josie's progress from Puritanical rigidity to a far more complex understanding and acceptance of human longings underscores one of the story's main themes.

Each chapter of the book begins with a quotation from the goddess, Jackie, herself; for it is Jackie's story and its reverberations upon Josie's life, which provides the novel with an interesting counterpoint.

One of the best and most cryptic of the JKO quotes comes toward the end: "Learning to accept what was unthinkable changes you." What Jackie would have thought about being the muse of Preston's first novel is an interesting question. My own hunch: I do not think it would have displeased her.

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