It is the late 1950s and Maria Callas is the most adored and magnificent diva of the century when she captures the eye of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Both Maria and Ari are married when they embark on their glamorous affair, mostly aboard the stunning yacht Christina and also around Europe where Maria performs on the greatest stages. This is a life of riches and champagne and Maria successfully hides behind it. Her reputation of being demanding is a mask for the reality of insecurity, a commitment to training and maintaining her peerless voice, a deep desire to have a child. Across the Atlantic, Jackie Kennedy would also seem to have it all. Married to the charismatic Jack Kennedy, a member of America’s most glamorous political family, elegant and beautiful, and on the path to the White House. But Jackie, too, is insecure, not loved as she should be, and destined for tragedies. When she needs support, it is Aristotle Onassis, a man drawn to beautiful and influential women, who provides it.
I love Gill Paul’s writing and I love the way that she invests so much feeling in her characters, bringing to life people that we may know well from history but bringing so much more to their portrayal. I knew a little of the love triangle of Maria, Ari and Jackie but I hadn’t thought about the real people behind it, just suspecting the motives of Jackie for marrying one of the richest men in the world. But in The Second Marriage, Maria, Ari and Jackie are vividly real and complex, displaying the author’s incredible insight into their natures and motivations.
Jackie is just as I imagine her but more intensely so, while Ari is charismatic, powerful and attentive. He is seen through the eyes of Maria and Jackie. We see how duplicitous he is, how much he hides from each but also how protective he is, how much he gives, emotionally as well as materially. We also wonder about his actions behind the scenes, what he might be doing that Maria and Jackie might not be aware of.
But the triumph of this outstanding novel is Maria Callas who, appropriately enough, dominates its stage. She is a tour de force of a character and personality, extremely complicated, full of intense feeling, dramatic, capable of such love. I absolutely adored her. Her relationship with Ari is intense and fiery. Her devotion to her craft is staggering and so fascinating to learn about. Maria’s relationship with her voice is a central theme of the novel. She is a glorious star, and we witness that side of her, but we also see her off stage and she is fabulous.
The novel moves between Maria and Jackie over a period of many years. We witness the big events of their lives, some well-known, others less so, and it is mesmerising as well as dramatic. It is also at times extremely sad and I cried and cried over bits of this novel. When I finished it, I felt bereft, that I’d been part of a great story with astonishing people and I was so loath to leave them behind.
I listened to the audiobook. I am in awe of its narrator Lisa Flanagan. The voices of Maria and Jackie are incredible and made me feel even closer to these women.
The Second Marriage is most definitely a contender for my top book of 2020.
Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband
Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband’
The Lost Daughter