book review: once upon a secret by mimi alford
If there are spoilers, there will always be a warning.
I’m a huge fan of history, but not necessarily in a dates-and-places kind of way. Often I become fascinated by a certain figure or event and then voraciously consume everything I can find on the topic. This applies to famous people, TV shows, artists, etc., as well. JFK, to me, is one of those charismatic and badass people who everyone feels a connection to. Yet, so much about him as a person is unknown, and that is what fascinates me.
The narrator, Mimi Alford, is likeable and naive enough that you almost forgive her complete lack of a spine. Written almost forty years after her affair with JFK, the book has a nostalgic tone which is complimented by Alford’s perspective point. Because she writes as an older, experienced woman, Alford is able to provide some explanation for the events that occurred and how they ended up shaping her entire life. I like the author Mimi Alford much more than the teenage Mimi Alford.
It is really a biography, telling her story from childhood to the present. Up until she was seventeen, she lived a conventional life of white privilege, attending reputable schools and adhering to the rules created by her parents. By some stroke of fate, she was offered an internship at the White House. The book chronicles her prolonged involvement with the ineffable JFK, and provides intimate glimpses into the life of a notoriously private man. Her descriptions of the President are extremely satisfying, and she is particularly adept at exploring his complex nature. The President is particularly endearing when she describes their daily swims and his phone calls to her while she was in college. Although she admires him completely, Alford is aware of and was often subjected to his dark side. She may well have been a product of her times, but some of her actions are completely enraging; not because she had an affair, but because she lacked the ability to assert herself in any way. While I understand where Ms. Alford is coming from, I don’t find “he was so charming” to be an adequate explanation for being so submissive.
This is the kind of book whose content and characters unsettles you and makes you think, which I like. It also does a good job of providing tidbits of history. In addition, the book is extremely philosophically sound, as it is basically a cautionary tale that encourages telling the truth and standing up for yourself. In short: if you like history, JFK, scandals, coming of age stories, and happy endings, it’s not a terrible way to kill a few hours.