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Extended Audio Sample A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, by Stacy Schiff Click for printable size audiobook cover
3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 3.00 (313 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: Stacy Schiff Narrator: Jason Culp Publisher: Penguin Random House Format: Abridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date:
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“In December 1776, a small boat delivered an old man to France.” So begins a dazzling narrative account of Benjamin Franklin’s French mission, the most exacting–and momentous–eight years of his life. 

When Franklin embarked, the colonies were without money, munitions, gunpowder or common cause; like all adolescents, they were to discover that there was a difference between declaring independence and achieving it. To close that gap Franklin was dispatched to Paris, amid great secrecy, across a winter sea thick with enemy cruisers. He was seventy years old, without any diplomatic training, and possessed of the most rudimentary French. He was also among the most famous men in the world. 

Franklin well understood that he was off on the greatest gamble of his career. But despite minimal direction from Congress he was soon outwitting the British secret service and stirring passion for a republic in an absolute monarchy.

In A Great Improvisation Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff offers an utterly fresh and thrilling account of Franklin’s Parisian adventure and of America’s debut on the world stage. Schiff weaves her tale of international intrigue from new and little-known primary sources, working from a host of diplomatic archives, family papers, and intelligence reports. From her pages emerges a particularly human Founding Father, as well as a vivid sense of how fragile, improvisational, and international was our country’ s bid for independence.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “Franklin was an ideal choice for the mission, as Stacy Schiff shows in this meticulously researched and judicious account of his eight years as a diplomatic dazzler and charmer in Paris.”

    New York Times

  • “Despite the undeniable impact on U.S.-French relations of two tumultuous centuries, A Great Improvisation reminds us that profound cultural differences between the two societies have not changed all that much—and thus remain at the root of their conflicting visions of the world. Plus ça change.”

    Washington Post

  • “In sparkling prose, burnished to a high gloss, Stacy Schiff tells the tale of Benjamin Franklin in Paris with piquant humor, outrageous anecdotes worthy of the finest French farce, and a wealth of lapidary observations. Her Paris unfolds as a glittering carnival of spies, rogues, frauds, and flawed reformers, eccentric nobility and perpetually squabbling American diplomats. Towering above all is the protean figure of Franklin, an improbable compound of wit, cunning, hypocrisy, courage, and tireless devotion to his country. C’est magnifique!”

    Ron Chernow, New York Times author of Alexander Hamilton

  • “What a brilliant book. A Great Improvisation pays tribute to the extraordinary love affair between monarchist France and the republican Benjamin Franklin. Their child was America, conceived at home and nurtured into maturity by France. It is a story full of intrigue, jealousy, and passion. But ultimately it is a celebration of one American’s love for his country. Stacy Schiff has written a masterpiece, capturing a fleeting moment when the stars aligned between Congress and Versailles.”

    Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

  • Winner of the 2006 Ambassador Book Award for American Studies
  • A 2005 New York Times Book Review Notable Book

Listener Opinions

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by Darren | 2/14/2014

    " Franklin seems to have been shafted by history, but this book reasserts his greatness. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 by Eric | 1/18/2014

    " Of course, we're all impressed with the author's extensive research and knowledge. However, it takes more time to describe Franklin's ride into town than it took him to make the ride. I've read about Franklin before and have loved reading his thoughts, beliefs, approaches, etc. but I lost interest in this book. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 by Jan | 1/14/2014

    " Good biography of Franklin's years in France. Detailed information of his relationships with French benefactors, friends and fans. Often funny, and staunchly supportive of Franklin's many gifts as a diplomat. Does not overlook or minimalize Franklin's slights and occassional cruelty to his wife and daughter, while he delighted and enjoyed the company of many female friends. Explores his complex relationship with his Tory illegitimate son, adored illegitimate grandson, and tolerated grandson, who followed in the "family business". "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 by Kendra | 1/5/2014

    " 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. relationship with France's monarchy, the lifestyle of the French upper class, a bit of the scientifc discoveries of the time (including ballooning) and the immediate ramifications for France and Louis XVI in extending help to the former British colonies in their quest to become independent. "

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