How can a writer bring a new perspective to a man – and a marriage – that ended two hundred years ago?
There have been scores of books written about John Adams, so what can a historian focus on to differentiate their work? A straight biography has been done – and done well – several time. There were recently some books on Adams and his opinions of oligarchy, government, and the aristocratic elite.
Enter A View from Abroad, Jeanne E. Abrams’s portrait focusing exclusively on John, and subsequently Abigail, while residing in Europe. The other biographies on Adams touched on his time overseas, of course – his learning of the traditional European customs; working with the Dutch to secure loans; negotiating with France to join the war and then with the British to end it – but this is the first work that only focuses on that aspect of Adams’s life.
Related: The Best Books on John Adams
This book also goes deeper into Abigail’s experience and feelings about the couple’s time across the Atlantic than most others. Abrams clearly dug into the primary sources, as many of Abigail’s letters to friends and family are used to help bring color and give the reader a window into her mind as she was navigating this completely new environment that she never had any desire to encounter.
Yet, there is only so much material on John and Abigail Adams to go around so, unfortunately, there are large chunks included here that are touched on in other works. That’s bound to happen. A person’s life is what it is – a writer can only look at it from so any perspectives.
For me, the biggest drawback to a book like this is that zeroing in on such a specific time and place will sometimes lead to a large focus on minor details. Trying to cover an accomplished person’s entire life in under 700 pages will ensure that most pages will cover the high points while A View from Abroad occasionally gets mired in pedantic details. Perhaps it’s because she was not the diplomat and thus less visible, but unfortunately many of the anecdotes from and about Abigail revolve around mundane upkeep of the household.
Maybe that’s the point, though. Aside from the highlights and greatest hits of most “Great Men” biographies, this acts more like a historical documentary on their everyday lives. Though ostensibly about their time abroad, the book is really about John and Abigail’s relationship and how hard they worked on creating a marriage and a partnership that has been idealized over the past two centuries.
They had been mostly apart for years and now they found themselves together, not at home, but in Europe, trying to act the part while also attempting to actually accomplish something – and experiencing the everyday challenges of marriage and parenthood.
Through it all, they retreated back to one another: “In the face of frequent separations, their marriage endured because of shared values, deep mutual affection and respect, as well as a match in intellect.”
John Adams spent a decade in Europe – Abigail joined him for the final four years – before returning to the country he helped birth to serve in its two highest executive roles. While there, they witnessed the best that Europe had to offer firsthand:
“During their time in Paris and London, both John and Abigail Adams had stood face to face with the heads of Europe, observed European society firsthand, and had the opportunity and leisure to converse about political and broader philosophical topics with some of the best minds of the era.”
Yet, despite all the culture, architecture, history, and regalia, they always believed that America was superior in every way. In A View from Abroad, a portrait is painted of a couple devoted to each other – and their country – experiencing the finest things the world had to offer.
But they just wanted to go home.
I was provided with a free copy in exchange for an honest review
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.