About one third of the way through Emily Hourican’s seventh novel, An Invitation To The Kennedys, I had the urge to set it aside. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but rather because I was enjoying it so much I wanted to eke it out.
Emily Hourican is an Irish journalist and author of six previous novels, including her Guinness Girls trilogy, taking in the lives of the Guinness women in the 1920s and 1930s. This latest book returns to those characters in 1938, with a focus on Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, sister of JFK and daughter of Joseph, the US ambassador to Britain at the time. When the family come to London, Kick is thrown into high society and this book covers an eventful trip to Kelvedon Hall, the home of Henry “Chips” Channon and Lady Honor Guinness. It’s the perfect backdrop for burgeoning love stories, disintegrating marriages, espionage plots and the knife-edge politics of the months preceding Britain’s declaration of war on Germany.
The main story focuses on Kick and her relationship with Billy Cavendish, the eldest son of the Duke of Devonshire (who she later married), but Hourican skilfully tells many stories here, from the completely fictional Jewish character of Doris to Honor Guinness’s struggles with being a wife and mother to the religious prejudices of the time. All are smoothly rotated by Hourican with the elegance of a carousel.
The characters are given extra emotional valency due to their actual historical lives and everything becomes more poignant due to the reader’s prior knowledge of how things actually turned out. Historical fiction is nearly always experienced as a prism through which the reader sees the present refracted and there are several points in the book when it is difficult not to reflect on current politics. When Kick says, “It’s pretty rough weather, being despised for something that isn’t anything you’ve done, but only what you are’ or when Chips says, “in truth, it feels like all of Europe is on the move,” it’s hard not to think of current politics, injustices and refugee crises.
But ultimately this is a breathtakingly glamorous and escapist read, with all of the natural drama of two wealthy dynasties set against a backdrop of war. Hourican pitches her sombre ending just right, and leaves us reflective and poised on the edge of so much darkness yet to come.