Excerpt from Louisa by Louisa Thomas, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams

by Louisa Thomas

Louisa by Louisa Thomas X
Louisa by Louisa Thomas
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2016, 512 pages

    Apr 2017, 512 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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Print Excerpt

Louisa barely noticed John Quincy's reappearance at the dinner table in December, but he returned and returned again. He could be found on Tower Hill almost every night. He would linger after dinner with the sisters to watch their skits, play their games, and listen to their laughter. He teased them and was teased; they called him "Mr. Quiz." He sat on the sofa next to Louisa and held the end of a string as Louisa threaded spangles on it for her embroidery. He loved watching them perform—Nancy played the pianoforte, Caroline the harp, and Louisa sang. "Evening at Mr. Johnson's. His daughters pretty and agreeable . . . Late home," he would record in his small, strict handwriting, logging his visits to the Johnsons' night after night.

He was drawn to them, this warm feminine circle—to the sound of a soprano voice, the mellifluous laughter, the suggestion of a life not of strain and hardship but of modestly easy luxury. It was so different from the atmosphere of expectations in which he'd been raised, so different from what he told himself he wanted. He noted the difference and it disturbed him; yet he could not seem to stay away.

The Johnson sisters could sense the increasing attention from this almost-stranger, serious and somewhat supercilious, though not unable to smile. He was unusual—but then, there were ways in which they were unusual too—and perhaps Louisa most of all.


. . .

She was almost an outsider by birth. At the time the American Revolution broke out across the Atlantic, when she was only two months old, her father was the buyer for a firm based in Annapolis. He was a proud American patriot unafraid to show his allegiance, which meant that it became neither safe nor profitable for him to live nearly in view of the Tower of London. When Louisa was three, her family moved to Nantes, France, where Joshua worked for a time as an agent for the nascent American government and tried to establish his own business. His house there, on L'Île Feydeau, in the middle of the Loire River, the part of town fashionable among the newly rich, became a frequent meeting point for Americans passing through— Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, and dozens of others, including John Adams, perhaps with his middle son in tow. They came for business, and perhaps for pleasure; Joshua Johnson projected a sense of living well. His apartments were in a mansion called "Le Temple du Goût"—the Temple of Taste. Rows of wrought iron balconies curved and curled into delicate tendrils; long windows opened like doors; the fireplaces were made of marble; and the ceilings soared. Later, Louisa blamed Le Temple du Goût for encouraging a certain showiness and ruinous cupidity in her mother, but it molded her own aesthetic as well. Long after she had been to the Hermitage, to the Tuileries, to Peterhof, to Sans Souci, she would remember Le Temple du Goût as a singular marvel, elegant and perfect.

She remembered her childhood, she would later say, like a dreamscape. She wouldn't remember the revolutionaries who came to tea, though—they meant little to her then, and anyway, she often wasn't home. Her parents sent her to a Roman Catholic boarding school located in Le Temple du Goût, up the mansion's spiral staircase. The Johnsons weren't Catholic, and Joshua probably wasn't too interested in formally educating his tiny children at that point. (Americans in France sometimes enrolled their children in Roman Catholic schools; Thomas Jefferson—highly skeptical of religion—sent his daughter Patsy to a convent.) But Catherine was frequently pregnant, all the Johnsons often sick, and Joshua prone to feeling overwhelmed. The school left an impression on Louisa, though the only nun she could later recall was the one who brought toys. What she would remember were the trips to convents and cathedrals, where she would stand in the tinctured light and then drop to her knees to pray before the cross. She was imprinted with a certain sacerdotal sensitivity, an openness to awe. She also would remember the French she learned.

Excerpted from Louisa by Louisa Thomas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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