American history, biographies, book reviews, Geoffrey Perret, JFK, John F Kennedy, presidential biographies, Presidents
“Jack: A Life Like No Other” by Geoffrey Perret was published in 2001, two years following the release of his biography of Dwight Eisenhower and four years after his biography of Ulysses Grant (both of which I have previously read and reviewed). Perret is a historian, the author of nearly a dozen books and served for three years in the U.S. Army.
Somewhat to my surprise, Perret’s book was reportedly the first single-volume cradle-to-grave biography of JFK. Soon to appear, though, were at least two additional (and far more thorough) biographies of Kennedy authored by Robert Dallek and Michael O’Brien.
Perret’s biography immediately proves unpretentious, easy to read and almost casual. About two-thirds of this 400-page book is allocated to Kennedy’s life up through his presidential campaign, with the balance allocated to his 1,037-day presidency. But throughout its run the biography proves uneven in emphasis, inconsistent in its grammatical style (often switching between present and past tense) and only occasionally leaves the impression it is delivering serious and consequential history.
This biography is generally organized chronologically although some topics are presented thematically (particularly during JFK’s presidency). Readers familiar with Kennedy’s life will take this in stride; others are prone to becoming confused by the approach and may find the narrative more challenging to follow than expected.
The discussion of Kennedy’s significant lifelong medical issues is less sophisticated than in later-published biographies and tends to understate their impact on his daily life. In addition, Perret undermphasizes the roles played by Kennedy’s siblings and colleagues in his personal and political lives. And while it is true that JFK’s life was filled with an abundance of garish impropriety, Perret seems to enjoy wallowing in the muck and Kennedy’s sex life takes up more space in this book than the entire last year of the Kennedy presidency.
But the book’s deepest flaw is that it lacks the penetrating insight, deep analysis and colorful character development of the best presidential biographies. This biography is not without virtue, but the most insightful moments are reserved for the last fifty pages when the author begins dissecting Kennedy, his motivations and what he learned during his presidency.
Perret’s also provides a particularly engrossing chapter on the young JFK during his years at Choate and offers the best introduction to Inga Arvad (one of Kennedy’s romantic interests who was thought to be a German spy) that I’ve seen. In addition, Perret expertly introduces and dissects Jackie Bouvier’s complex and often perplexing personality.
But, overall, Geoffrey Perret’s biography of John F. Kennedy provides more pitfalls than promise. Readers new to JFK may find this a buoyant, lively, fast-paced and relatively uncomplicated sojourn through Kennedy’s life. But a more experienced audience will find Perret’s biography too breezy, unsophisticated and lacking in penetrating analysis and character development.
Overall rating: 3 stars
Glad to see you back in the blogging saddle.
A pretty low score, perhaps near your lowest?
A “3” places this biography right at the cusp of the bottom 10% of biographies I’ve scored. My lowest rating so far was a “2.5” (three biographies earned that score). I’ve tried to choose biographies wisely in order to avoid low ratings (and poor experiences), but I’ve not always succeeded…
Have you ever considered going back and revising a prior rating?
I think I’ve gone back and revised a couple of ratings (by 1/4 star) but not too far after the original post. I feel like my margin of error is + or – about 1/4 of a star (if I forgot a book entirely, re-read and re-rated it I think I’d end up quite close to my original rating) but I’ll never know for sure…
Alec Rogers said:
Given what remains, seems like Dallek is the best choice for a comprehensive single volume.
That’s much strong suspicion as well…