There are several reasons why we keep diaries, which sometimes conflict and overlap. It’s an insurance policy against the failure of memory, an answer to the question “what if, five years from now, I can’t remember what I did today?” It can be a form of self-mythologising, providing a version of a life that can be disseminated into the world. The division of diarists into those writing with posterity in mind and those creating a solely private text is not clear-cut; it is rare to come across a diary with no intended readers at all. Perhaps most significantly, the very act of writing can be cathartic. Setting down experiences can provide clarity and absolution even if the writer has no intention of turning back the page to read what came before.
Thomas Jefferson, describing John Adams in a letter, wrote, “He is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if you ever become acquainted with him.” The feeling was mutual. “I always loved Jefferson, and still love him,” Adams said when he was an old man. Their friendship lasted (with interruptions) for 51 years, from their meeting in 1775 in the Continental Congress to their deaths on the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Gordon S. Wood, the Alva O. Way university professor at Brown, who has been writing history as long as Jefferson and Adams knew each other, examines their relationship in “Friends Divided.”
There was ample potential for division in this romance. Jefferson was a Virginia aristocrat whose first election to the colonial legislature at age 26 was an easy trot to home plate from third base. Adams, the son of a farmer/shoemaker, thrust himself into the Massachusetts elite by unremitting application as a lawyer and activist. Although both men deplored slavery, Jefferson owned slaves all his life, while Adams never owned any. As an intellectual, Jefferson was a water-strider, skimming over every subject; Adams bored into history. Jefferson wrote for the ages; Adams admitted, “I have never had time to make my poor productions shorter.” Jefferson was shy, gracious and smooth. Adams was warm and ardent with friends, prickly and argumentative with rivals (and friends).
There is no disguising it – at least that is what you think at first. This book is a potboiler – or, given its subject, a turkey brick. You can almost hear the publishers – or Nina Stibbe herself – calculating: how about following the success of Love, Nina (her memoir about being a nanny to LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers’ sons) and a couple of amusing novels with a festive bestseller? I opened An Almost Perfect Christmas preparing to be underwhelmed, only to find myself chuckling at every other page. By the end – or, actually, not long after the beginning – I was a convert. This book is the seasonal garnish we all need. There is no subject upon which Stibbe could not entertain.