Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America” as Want to Read:
A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

3.88  ·  Rating Details ·  718 Ratings  ·  80 Reviews
In this dazzling work of history, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author follows Benjamin Franklin to France for the crowning achievement of his career

In December of 1776 a small boat delivered an old man to France." So begins an enthralling narrative account of how Benjamin Franklin--seventy years old, without any diplomatic training, and possessed of the most rudimentary French
ebook, 512 pages
Published January 10th 2006 by Henry Holt and Co. (first published 2005)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about A Great Improvisation, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about A Great Improvisation

This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,428)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
Sep 15, 2013 Jerome rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Despite our own self-serving myths about our war for independence, the American revolution did not reflect the action of a single country coming of age. Rather, the revolution marked the debut of the United States onto the global stage where France and the rest of Europe had already been players. The revolution was not so much as “won” by the colonies as by the aid of the French and the blunders by the British. The foreign aid provided by France during the revolution was essential to the outcome ...more
This one is densely packed with a lot of information. If I were rating it solely on the meticulous quality of the research, I'd probably give it a 5. I'm used to McCullough and Isaacson though, and styles similar to theirs. I'm sure Ms. Schiff is very bright, but she apparently needs to prove it to her readers, resulting in a densely written book, at least for the first half. Once the war was won, it became much more readable and I really enjoyed the second half of the book.

Regarding the audio

A Great Improvisation provides a focus on the time Benjamin Franklin spent as the American envoy to France negotiating treaties with all the European powers and providing American representation in Versailles. From the intrigues of the court, to the social life of Paris, to the intricate negotiations with not only France but peace with Great Britain and commercial treaties with almost everyother power in Europe. The drawback to this book is the heavy prose that drags on with high amounts of deta
Oct 30, 2010 Andrew rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In this book, Stacy Schiff covers the trip Benjamin Franklin took to France in order to help America gain its independence from Great Britain. The story is interesting in itself, and needs little for its improvement. However, Schiff is able to use analysis to describe not only what Franklin is doing, but what he is thinking while it is being done. It is an opportunity to meet the man who was so revered in colonial America. As a writer, I was able to learn from Schiff that it is not so much what ...more
Jan 07, 2009 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Enjoyable read about Franklin's peace treaty work with the French.
It's not a rosy picture read, Franklin is definitely presented warts and all, but he was apparently the best man for the job, by a large margin.
John Adams is usually my favorite founding father, but he shows to bad advantage as a diplomat to a Monarchy. :)
It's amazing that the French to give us as much support as they did.
Oct 23, 2011 Heather rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It took me a long time to get through this because it was such a fascinating book full of historical facts that the author carefully researched, I didn't want to miss a thing! It's great if you're into American history and want to know what was going on with the American delegates (Franklin, John Jay, John Adams, etc) who were in France trying to get assistance from the French king (Louis XVI) for the American Revolution, while pretending to simply be there on personal vacations (after all, Fran ...more
Aug 29, 2010 Kendra rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A gossipy, fun book to read about America's diplomatic outreach to France during the American Revolution. The author reveals the appealing aspects of Benjamin Franklin's character, but also provides evidence of the contradictions in his life and personality. John Adams doesn't appear to be a very appealing man, but you get a sense of his frustration in playing second fiddle to Franklin. You won't learn much about the battles of the Revolution, but will be treated to the development of the U.S. r ...more
Diane Wachter
Did not finish...truly tried to read it alllll the way through! At first I thought maybe I wasn't in the mood for so much history, so I put it down and picked up something light and fun. Picked it up again, but was again put off by how many times I had to check the meaning of the words Ms. Schiff used. Seemed she was trying to impress with difficult words when a common one would have suited much better. Very rarely do I not finish a book I've started. I did struggle to read a quarter of this boo ...more
Dec 20, 2007 Katy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: franklin-philes & founding father fans.
Shelves: history
An account of Franklins stay in Paris during and after the Revolutionary War. It is common knowledge that he was there, that he worked for American interests with the French court - but the extent of his influence and how much his actions actually effected the outcome of the war is extraordinary. Franklin himself comes alive in this account, and my thanks to Schiff for keeping him human (and not some infallible hero). Franklin's petulance, love of luxury and 'the good life', his indecision and h ...more
Jan 27, 2015 Rj rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
For the past week, each night I have anxiously slipped into the pages of Stacy Schiff's A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (New York: Henry Holt and Son, 2005) and wandered through streets of Paris with Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Spurred by an interest in Franklin in Paris after watching HBO's new mini-series John Adams, Schiff's book on Franklin has allowed me to accompany him as he makes his way through the labyrinthine politics of Versailles, Paris, France and the e ...more
This is a phenomenal book, covering a part of American history that is downright fascinating and at the same time embarrassing. I am disheartened to know that politics has been as irresponsible from the very beginning as it ever has been. But if nothing else, I am very glad Ben Franklin was who he was, when he was, and where he was. I feel incredibly indebted to the old rascal, and wish I were a little more like him in all the best ways. He wasn't perfect, but he was exactly what was needed.
Todd Stockslager
Jun 09, 2015 Todd Stockslager rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Sometimes plodding account of Ben Franklin's role as commissioner to France from 1776 to 1786 shows the great debt we owe Franklin for our independence, the great difficulties of diplomacy in an era when communication between continents took months, and the great difficulty of negotiating personalities and cultures in a climate of fear and uncertainty. Throughout, Franklin acted always honorably, though not without fault, and with more success than any of his American peers sent to replace, augm ...more
Paul Cwalina
Jun 12, 2015 Paul Cwalina rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very well-written and excruciatingly researched, this book does a fantastic job of transporting the reader into 18th century France and into the thick of the diplomatic challenges facing Franklin at the time.

Serious students of the Revolutionary War will find it fascinating and informative. It is not, though, for the casual reader. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, I found it to be about one hundred pages too long and too often straying far afield from the main story. Ms. Schiff, in her drive to be
Daniel Kukwa
There is an enormous, biblical amount of historical scholarship to be found in this book, and its examination of Franklin in Paris revealed many new facts and events that I was unaware of prior to this reading (the history teacher equivalent of winning a lottery). However, I can't say that wading through this massive amount of information made for an absorbing & relaxing read. Stacy Schiff's "Cleopatra" was a breeze by comparison; although I hate resorting to the phrase "too much information ...more
Scott Lee
Jan 15, 2016 Scott Lee rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is more what I expected of Schiff after all the acclaim for her other books. An excellent book, both in a captivating novelistic writing style that captures beauty of language etc. and a well-developed, well-documented scholarly delivery of history. While Cleopatra seemed to focus at least equally--if not more than equally--focused on Marc Antony, This book focuses clearly on its titular subjects, Franklin, and his role throughout the revolution as minister in plenipotentiary to the court o ...more
Daniel Chaikin
This is a pretty major work.

Benjamin Franklin spent nine years in Paris as a US Ambassador during and after the US War Revolutionary War. I always saw that as a footnote, but his roll was fundamental to the success of the war. It was French aid that allowed the US to separate from Britain, and it was French political decisions that allowed the US to then immediately become an independent entity without foreign ties. And yet, poor France not only never benefited from US independence, but spent s
Oct 19, 2009 Kelly rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A history book on the time Ben Franklin was in Paris waiting out the French to jump in and back America for our Independence.

Unfortunately seven years of excruciatingly oblique politics does not make for a major pleasure of a read. It seems politics is eternal, you never know what is ever the truth, what of the 1,000 motivations are going to lead, or are ever sure what is behind what is going on; past, present, or future.

I am also not sure that you can push history into being a novel. The even
***Dave Hill
This book tells the tale of Benjamin Franklin’s mission to France after the Declaration of Independence is signed, throughout the Revolution, and beyond. It’s an interesting subject matter, but a mixed bag as a book.

Franklin’s mission was hobbled the entire time by the combination of fierce infighting between different American factions, Colonial ambivalence as to how close we should actually get to France, trans-Atlantic communication lags (particularly during wartime), Congressional disarray a
Don Weidinger
Dec 23, 2012 Don Weidinger rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
: First Secretary of State, an opportunistic envoy from the land of opportunity, open mindedness is an ability to debate either side of an issue, mental algebra to evaluate options, Ben's son William disagreed with Ben his entire life and was not sorry or ashamed, Ben may have took mercury for boils and lost 3 teeth, Voltaire and common sense/liberty, do not send a letter when bitter--wait till better disposition, beliefs of religion--God created-worship-do good-immortal soul-vice punished & ...more
Apr 15, 2014 Donna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It was interesting...a slice of history that is not so well-known. And all the problems he had and worse when he returned! It amazes me that those early founding fathers were able to achieve what they did in spite of all the political nonsense. I wonder if it's worse now? I doubt they could never ever accomplish what they did in today's world.
James Biser
Feb 11, 2015 James Biser rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is an excellent history lesson. You get to know Benjamin Franklin's personality very well as he lives among the French. It is interesting to see how much he is beloved by the French, hated by the British, and grudgingly looked up to by the young U.S.
His family life is something of a bad soap opera.
However, the man is great. I enjoyed following him and watching him deal with the world aroun him.
Aug 15, 2015 H. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Made history fun to read...didn't hurt that it was my favorite period in history. Ms. Schiff gets down to the nitty-gritty of a fledgling nation struggling to make a name for itself in a world and country that is older than itself and has its own ideas for the future of the American colonies. She skillfully weaves her masterful tale of an old man playing the ultimate power game in the prime of his life with humor and truth. Wonderful book, definitely recommend it for anyone who wants to delve mo ...more
I enjoyed learning some new facts about Franklin such as how well he knew and spoke French - not very well, apparently! I also liked learning more about John Adams. However, there were passages that seemed to drag on and on so I only gave it 2 stars.
Jennifer Cassell
Too slow to get through. An interesting premise, but the author feels compelled to give a minute-by-minute run through of everything happening. This is a hard slog.
Gary McMurtrey
Feb 02, 2016 Gary McMurtrey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting book about a process I knew nothing about. One of the most interesting thing I learned was how much some of our founders disliked each other.
May 17, 2016 Quinn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This wasn't the best of books I've read about Franklin but it did describe in depth his help to America and how much he loved France.
Mary Alice
Here you have absolutely everything little detail of Benjamin Franklin's years as a minister plenipotentiary in France. I must admit I was fascinated, even as Franklin himself was fascinated with every small detail of life, love and science.

This is a book for people who are interested in Franklin, his contemporaries in France and Franco-American relations. John Adams comes through as a boor (perhaps unfairly).
Jefferson Coombs
Jan 21, 2016 Jefferson Coombs rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I enjoyed this book. Really brings home how important Franklin was to the Revolution.
Aug 13, 2012 Joe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Schiff has written a tome on the life of Franklin in Paris during and after the US Revolution. Much more information than I needed but it was very worthwhile. I read it as a "audiobook" but checked out the hardcover from the library to see the picture layouts.

I am glad that I read it. I learned a lot. The role of the French in the US Revolution is very much understated. The French only got an empty treasury, which was another straw leading to their revolution, in return.

I would recommend it as
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 80 81 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • General George Washington: A Military Life
  • Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship that Saved the Revolution
  • The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown
  • George Washington's War: The Forging of a Revolutionary Leader and the American Presidency
  • John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy
  • A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier: Some Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin
  • George Washington
  • The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army
  • Adams Vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800
  • Signing Their Rights Away
  • John Jay: Founding Father
  • John Adams: Party of One
  • A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence
  • For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne had won at Saratoga
  • Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty
  • Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams
  • Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams
  • Benedict Arnold's Navy: The Ragtag Fleet That Lost the Battle of Lake Champlain But Won the American Revolution
Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize, the Ambassador Award in American Studies, and the Gilbert Chinard Prize of the Institut Français d'Amérique. All three were New York Times Notable Books; ...more
More about Stacy Schiff...

Share This Book

“The majority of the guns fired on the British at Saratoga were French. Four years later, when the British set down their muskets at Yorktown, they surrendered to forces that were nearly equal parts French and American, all of them fed and clothed and paid by France, and protected by de Grasse’s fleet. Without French funds the Revolution would have collapsed; by a conservative estimate, America’s independence cost France more than 1.3 billion livres, the equivalent of $13 billion today.” 0 likes
“There are people whose defects become them, and others who are ill served by their good qualities. —La Rochefoucauld” 0 likes
More quotes…