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

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  998 ratings  ·  98 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 F
Paperback, 528 pages
Published January 10th 2006 by Holt McDougal (first published April 2nd 2005)
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Average rating 3.90  · 
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Kevin Shepherd
I first became aware of Stacy Schiff in 2013 when she was one of the featured commencement speakers at my son's college graduation.  I was so impressed with her that I rushed out and bought 'Cleopatra' - a historical biography that read like an exquisite work of fiction. I was expecting more of the same with 'A Great Improvisation'

...ummm, yes and no. 

Whereas Cleopatra is enchanting and rather romantic, AGI is much more academic and intense.  If your interest in American History is
May 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 01, 2011 rated it really liked it

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
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
Sep 19, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 20, 2007 rated it really liked it
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 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
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.
Jun 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Good book covering the Revolutionary period in France and how the US got French support.
Matthew Pandel
May 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic the whole way through!
May 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
Had bought this book almost a decade ago. Finally set it free. It covers Franklin's years in France in great detail. The book showcases his ability to deal with the French court with great aplomb and yet struggle in dealing with his own team and Congress. His constant nudging of Vergennes for funding was the bonanza that financed the war of independence and which eventually (and unintentionally) led to the bankruptcy of Louis XVI's France.

His taciturnity to the constant distrust, complaining an
Dec 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Richard Subber
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A Great Improvisation has been around for a while, so I’m catching up to another nonstop example of Stacy Schiff’s luscious, lavish, and literate prose.
She offers, as usual, stunningly detailed research, and the master’s touch in illuminating the characters of the people whose lives are captured by her pen.
Franklin didn’t do it all by himself, of course, but his hand was in much of the good, bad, and sometimes ugly diplomacy of getting the French to help America get started.
Aug 29, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Vicky Hunt
Feb 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
A detailed political account of Franklin's diplomatic voyage to France that reveals much about the man himself that was never taught in grade school history classes. A very enjoyable telling of history that could have been condensed perhaps by a third less material, and have yet been very thoroughly covered. This has its advantages though, in that the source materials are vetted extensively. Franklin has always been an extremely likeable American, and is even the more so once he is revealed from ...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
Jan 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
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.
Oct 31, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I found this book a delight to read, rich in detail of personalities especially the French. Schiff does a fine job of setting up in juxtaposition the personalities especially of Adams and Franklin (a legacy with which we continue to struggle) as well as the European monarchies and intrigue with America as newcomer and democracy. Recommended for all interested in the history and founding of the USA as well as America's place in the global political arena.
Oct 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
I read this book long after I finished writing Benjamin Franklin's Bastard, because this book started where mine left off, but as always, I learned something new. There is no end to the depth of this man.
Treasure I. Moore, Author
Aug 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
For my first read of this magnitude vis-a-vis American History, I am encouraged to read additional books of similar context. Such writings are on such an elevated plane of thinking, the privilege to have access to such works is an absolute honor.

It's unfortunate that a man who seemingly singled handled helped America loosen the grip of Great Britain's stronghold was not given his due appreciation in his lifetime. To that end, there we're other Biblical undertones that were noteworthy. Particula
Jul 16, 2019 rated it liked it
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
Mar 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Does Benjamin Franklin get enough credit for winning the Revolutinary War? He talked (conned) the French, King Louis XVI, into sending enough money and troops to make it possible to win the war. Without the French we might still be English colonists. Ironically, the amounts lent us were so enormous that the debt incurred was a major factor in the coming French Revolution.
It’s delightful to picture the renowned scientist arriving at the opulent court in a coonskin cap. Franklin, according to Sch
Olivier Lepetit
Aug 05, 2019 rated it liked it
What a book. 7 months to read as I had to get some light reading in the meantime as this is HEAVY.
A piece of advice : once you start reading, don’t stop. The book actually tells quite an interesting story in minute details, going through every aspect of Franklin’s life for these 8 capital years.
I come out of it exhausted but full of interesting facts. And being French myself, no doubt a few anecdotes to mention to my American friends about the role of France in the indepen
Jul 06, 2018 rated it liked it
Although this is a good work several things were very irratating about the book. In my opinion she has way too many footnotes, almost one per page. For me, if the info is that pivotal to the narrative, put it there. Secondly, I hate it when non-English phrases are used with no translation. This is done over and over again. Would I read this again? I'm not sure I would as I felt I was wadding though it to finish the book.
Aug 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Schiff presents a balanced view of Franklin and Adams and their rocky relationship. While reading it, it occurred to me that things are not so different now from 250 years ago: people back then lied, spread rumors, and talked smack about each other. It just happened at the pace of a ship crossing the sea with letters in a sack rather than an instantaneous Tweet. Human nature doesn’t change.
Good not get past the writing style. Finished it but only because it's next month's club selection.
Jul 06, 2017 rated it it was ok
I love Stacy Schiff, but her style just doesn't work as well for a more complicated series of events like this.
Feb 18, 2018 rated it it was ok
I quit. It was just too dense and I decided not to slog though any further.
Sep 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Sparkling, humorous, wonderful prose. Dr. Franklin would approve. One of the best books of its kind I have ever read. Worthy of its marvelous subject.
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
***Dave Hill
Oct 13, 2011 rated it liked it
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), Congressiona
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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
“Helvétius’s maxims: “It is worth being wise only so long as one can also be foolhardy.” 2 likes
“We most often understand the value of time only when we are in a position of having to regret its loss,” 1 likes
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