It might be that it was the first Sarah Vowell book I’ve listened to on audiobook, but I don’t think so. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and I love Sarah Vowell’s voice (not to mention the voices of her many stellar audiobook guests, including John Slattery as Lafayette, Nick Offerman as George Washington, Alexis Denisof as all the British people, and Bobby Cannavale as Benjamin Franklin). I think it might be a combination of the book not being what I expected it to be, and in my opinion, it being somewhat of a mess structurally.
Really, though, take this review with a grain of salt. It’s such an outsized reaction to the way I normally feel about Vowell’s books that I don’t know if I can trust it. I may have to re-read in the future when I can pay it more attention and not be distracted by just wanting to listen to the Hamilton soundtrack instead. I think I checked out emotionally pretty early on and never tried very hard to get back into it.
Anyway, going in, I expected this book to be about Lafayette himself, when really it was more about the American Revolution, and Lafayette makes appearances every now and then. I expected to get a detailed explanation for just why exactly Americans were so obsessed with this French dude, and I didn’t. And I expected more from the later period of Lafayette’s life, when he made his return trip to America, where over 75% of New Yorkers showed up to hear him speak. That wasn’t there at all, mainly some nods to the insane tour he made of America afterwards.
As always, Vowell’s actual writing was great. She throws in all this sassy side stuff and smaller human stuff that most historians ignore or don’t care about. And she does make clear two things that are central to the book: just how important of a role not only Lafayette but France itself played in helping America win its independence (and contrasting that with how we generally feel about the French now), and that the myth we have that all the Founding Fathers agreed and the early country was this perfect utopia is absolute bunk. Americans have always disagreed with each other vehemently and loudly, and will presumably continue to do so for the rest of eternity.