lafayette in the somewhat united states

LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES by Sarah Vowell [Audiobook Thoughts]

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Written by Sarah Vowell
Audiobook read by Sarah Vowell
Published by Penguin on October 20th 2015
ISBN: 9781101624012
Genres: History, United States, Biography & Autobiography
Format: audiobook
Pages: 288
Source: public library via Overdrive

From the bestselling author of Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot, an insightful and unconventional account of George Washington’s trusted officer and friend, that swashbuckling teenage French aristocrat the Marquis de Lafayette.  
Chronicling General Lafayette’s years in Washington’s army, Vowell reflects on the ideals of the American Revolution versus the reality of the Revolutionary War.  Riding shotgun with Lafayette, Vowell swerves from the high-minded debates of Independence Hall to the frozen wasteland of Valley Forge, from bloody battlefields to the Palace of Versailles, bumping into John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Lord Cornwallis, Benjamin Franklin, Marie Antoinette and various kings, Quakers and redcoats along the way.    Drawn to the patriots’ war out of a lust for glory, Enlightenment ideas and the traditional French hatred for the British, young Lafayette crossed the Atlantic expecting to join forces with an undivided people, encountering instead fault lines between the Continental Congress and the Continental Army, rebel and loyalist inhabitants, and a conspiracy to fire George Washington, the one man holding together the rickety, seemingly doomed patriot cause.     While Vowell’s yarn is full of the bickering and infighting that marks the American past—and present—her telling of the Revolution is just as much a story of friendship: between Washington and Lafayette, between the Americans and their French allies and, most of all between Lafayette and the American people.  Coinciding with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, Vowell lingers over the elderly Lafayette’s sentimental return tour of America in 1824, when three fourths of the population of New York City turned out to welcome him ashore.  As a Frenchman and the last surviving general of the Continental Army, Lafayette belonged to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction.  He was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what the founders hoped this country could be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing, singular past.   Vowell’s narrative look at our somewhat united states is humorous, irreverent and wholly original.
From the Hardcover edition.

I’m taking the “bullet review” approach to Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States because it seems to fit the subject.

The American Revolution’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman
  • What’s it about? The United States might never have won the independence it declared from England without the help of France. The French provided money, guns, and soldiers to aid George Washington’s Continental Army, However, their most valued contribution may have been the young Marquis de Lafayette. Vowell’s selective history of the American Revolution emphasizes the battles Lafayette fought in and the friendships he made.

Read by SARAH VOWELL with:

JOHN SLATTERY as the Marquis de Lafayette  (Mad Men)

NICK OFFERMAN as George Washington (Parks & Recreation)

FRED ARMISEN as Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Portlandia, SNL)

BOBBY CANNAVALE as Benjamin Franklin (Boardwalk Empire)

JOHN HODGMAN as John Adams (The Daily Show)

STEPHANIE MARCH as Evelyn Wotherspoon Wainwight & Linda Williams (Law & Order: SVU)

ALEXIS DENISOF as The British Leadership (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

PATTON OSWALT as Thomas Jefferson (The King of Queens, Ratatouille, Young Adult)

Original music by Academy Award-winner MICHAEL GIACCHINO

Lafayette, The Opinions Are Here
  • What worked for me? The text of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States relies heavily on quotes from the correspondence and writings of Lafayette and his contemporaries, and that gives the audiobook cast plenty to do. Vowell’s writing around those quotes is sharp and wry, and she infuses the historical facts with a distinct voice. I got the impression that she enjoyed doing the research for the book, and it took her down some intriguing detours.
  • What didn’t I like?  Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is partly biography, partly history. For me, it was not quite enough of either, because I felt that Vowell shortchanged her title character. Lafayette should have felt central to the book, but he frequently seemed to drop into the background. At times, I wondered if Vowell ultimately found some of his contemporaries more interesting. Some of the detours I mentioned were intriguing, but I was occasionally frustrated by shifts in focus.
  • Recommended? Despite those frustrations, I was entertained and engaged by Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. It wasn’t completely satisfying, but I think it’s a worthwhile audio read. One word of warning, though: Don’t expect to hear much about Alexander Hamilton.
 LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES: From the Prologue lafayette excerpt

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13 comments

  1. I know so many people who love her work but I’ve never felt compelled to try it, for some reason.

    1. I read a book of her essays years ago, before she started specializing in pop history–I liked it, but it has taken me a long time to get back to her writing. I’ll probably try another of hers in audiobook–maybe on a subject that I won’t have expectations about :-).

  2. Oh my gosh — never thought of listening to this one. It’s been on my TBR since I first heard of it, and now I’m changing my preference to audio. Great review!

  3. I listened to this one, and every time Sarah pronounced a French word, I was giggling. I know my pronunciations are not great, but I almost felt she was purposely butchering them. Still, I love listening to her work on audio. Listening to her own special brand of snark is much better than reading it.

    1. I know some Spanish and a little Italian, but not French, and even I could tell some of her pronunciations were a little…creative? Inconsistent, too, but definitely amusing! I think she’ll be audio-only for me from now on–I’ve got several of her books to catch up on!

  4. Vowell can tend to get carried a good ways down side alleys. They are always interesting side alleys but… Still, I always find so much to enjoy about her books.