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Publisher's Summary

From the best-selling author of Assassination Vacation and Unfamiliar Fishes, a humorous account of the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette - the one Frenchman we could all agree on - and an insightful portrait of a nation's idealism and its reality.

On August 16, 1824, an elderly French gentlemen sailed into New York Harbor, and giddy Americans were there to welcome him. Or, rather, to welcome him back. It had been 30 years since he had last set foot in the United States, and he was so beloved that 80,000 people showed up to cheer for him. The entire population of New York at the time was 120,000.

Lafayette's arrival in 1824 coincided with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history. Congress had just fought its first epic battle over slavery, and the threat of a Civil War loomed. But Lafayette, belonging to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction, was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what they wanted this country to be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans; it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing, singular past.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is a humorous and insightful portrait of the famed Frenchman, the impact he had on our young country, and his ongoing relationship with instrumental Americans of the time, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and many more.

John Slattery as the Marquis de Lafayette
Nick Offerman as George Washington
Fred Armisen as Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben
Bobby Cannavale as Benjamin Franklin
John Hodgman as John Adams
Stephanie March as Evelyn Wotherspoon Wainwight and Linda Williams
Alexis Denisof as The British Leadership
Patton Oswalt as Thomas Jefferson and Sherm

©2015 Sarah Vowell (P)2015 Simon & Schuster Audio

Critic Reviews

"An A-list of recognizable voices, including those of John Hodgman reading John Adams and Nick Offerman portraying George Washington, delivers dozens of quotes from our forefathers. Vowell deftly stirs together tones of satire, superlative research, and, yes, patriotism to make American history irresistible. If she isn't a national treasure, she should be." (AudioFile)

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Already waiting for Sarah Vowell's next adventure

America is a fascinating place and Sara Vowell takes us along with her as she explores our founding generations and their impact on our life today. Lots of authors do that as well but Ms. Vowell also brings humor, irony and a little spark to the journey that makes me listen to and/or read her books again and again.
Having read Chernow's extensive biography of George Washington, I couldn't help but be interested in the life of one of his closest friends, Lafayette. Lafayette pricked Washington's conscious about one of Washington's most difficult conundrums - slavery. All the while, being a true friend to Washington, the Revolution and the country that became the United States. I'm happy I got the chance to know him better.

18 of 18 people found this review helpful

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A mix of oddly informative, oddly funny, and odd

I like Sarah Vowell's style. And, before you buy this audiobook, you should make sure that you like Sarah Vowell's style too- her storytelling approach and voice are very distinctive, and even a short sample of the audiobook should be enough to tell you whether it could work for you, or whether it will drive you crazy. So, listen before you go any further.

Even assuming that you are okay with The Voice, this book is a bit odd. Sarah writes with humor, but has an obvious non-ironic love for American history. At the same time, she has gotten a variety of her famous friends to provide voices for the frequent (and frequently jarring) quotes, and many of them seem to read their lines dramatically or with such terrible fake accents that it seems counter to the story being told (though, unsurprisingly, Nick Offerman is an awesome George Washington). So there are some weird tonal choices as a result.

Sarah Vowell picks unusual stories to tell, and I really appreciated the tale of Lafayette. I had come to the book fresh off an American Revolutionary history kick (inspired by the musical Hamilton, and the book John Adams), but still learned a lot. At the same time, the focus of the story is weirdly elusive. For most of the book, it is focused on Lafayette, framed by his triumphal return to the US at the end of his life. However, that frame is never explored, and, instead, we mostly get an interesting story of the trials and tribulations of George Washington (with Lafayette as sidekick) from 1777-1778 and 1781-82. It is a bit weird that Lafayette's role in the French Revolution, or his entire later life, gets short shrift. Similarly, the end of the book switches from history to essay on freedom, which is again interesting, but it seems like an abrupt transition, as does a long digression about Quakers.

I really enjoyed the book overall, however, but it is an odd hybrid of memoir, history book, travelogue, and essay. I am used to this from Vowell, but be prepared for something different if it is your first experience.

18 of 19 people found this review helpful

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I love Sarah Vowell's Narration

I have listened to all of Sarah Vowell's books on audio because I love her narration. You can tell she used to be in radio because they are not simply straight narration, but have characters that interject.

Sarah Vowell is not a straight historian. If that is what you are looking for you will want to skip this. She is instead a historian that loves being side tracked and putting her own discovery into the story. This is first person research oriented history.

I also think this was the best since Assassination Vacation. Essentially this is the story of the french contribution to the American Revolutionary War. It is a good reminder that without French (and Dutch) help, it is likely that the United States would not have won the Revolutionary War.

I do wish she had spent some more time on Lafayette after the Revolution. And the recent bio I read on John Quincy Adams spent more time on Lafayette's return to the US nearly 50 years later than this did.

But all in all, if you are looking for a snarky history of the American Revolution, this is a good place to start.

32 of 36 people found this review helpful

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  • William
  • Montclair, NJ, USA
  • 10-27-15

Great story and easy overview of the American Revolution

Sarah Vowell's voice takes a bit of getting used to but once accustomed to it I found her delivery strangely addictive. Her semi-sarcastic narrative supported by separate voices of the main figures in the story was highly effective and entertaining.

The voice of Parks and Rec's Ron Swanson as George Washington is an epic choice.

9 of 10 people found this review helpful

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For those who "get" Sarah, another winner

I am somewhat amused but more often disappointed to read reviews by readers that don't "get" Sarah Vowell. Apparently they were expecting something other than what we long-time Sarah lovers have come to expect. Those unfamiliar with her work might want to check out her many appearances on "This American Life" where her contributor page leads with this introduction: "Sarah's the author of several books and has a great, classic radio voice that sounds like no one else. Some of her most popular stories are in these episodes: 81, 104, 107, 118, 151."

What is often lost on those unfamiliar with Sarah's work is that the underlying tale of historic events and figures is carefully, nay painstakingly researched, woven into a compelling story format and delivered with her sharp wit, irony and signature "wise-guy" attitude. It's almost funny (but kind of sad) to read reviews expressing indignant outrage at the narration. That Sarah narrates her own book is indeed the point. Well done Sarah and company.

17 of 20 people found this review helpful

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Hilarious History

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

I would absolutely recommend this audiobook to a friend. I'm sure I would have enjoyed this book in Kindle or paperback, but just as I prefer to hear David Sedaris read his books aloud, Sarah Vowell and the cast of characters have voices that make the book come to life. I think I will always want to experience Sarah Vowell's books in her unusual voice.

What other book might you compare Lafayette in the Somewhat United States to and why?

This book tends to be in a class by itself. While one could make the case to compare it to other stories about history, no other history book I have read cracks wise like Vowell does. And while it could be considered a humor book, it is an in-depth, well researched biography of a great historical figure.

What does the narrators bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

John Slattery provides a charming, authentic voice to the main character. Nick Offerman does a believable job as George Washington. Their voices have the gravitas and warmth that you would imagine the actual people to have. The quotes that Vowell incorporates for them to say are so evocative of the characters that I want to listen again and again.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

Toward the end, when the visit of Pershing to Paris in 1917 is described, his declaration, "Lafayette, we are here" brought tears to my eyes. I would love to one day visit Paris to find his grave and say the same thing. What a pivotal person in American history - I had no idea.

Any additional comments?

I felt like I was taking a chance downloading this book. Sarah Vowell's voice is not the smooth, polished voice of your typical narrator. I wasn't sure I would want to listen to her for nearly 8 hours. What happened? As soon as the book finished, I started it again. The story was so compelling, and the performances (including the author) were so textured and enjoyable that I didn't want to say goodbye. Her writing style is so whimsical and witty that it was an approach to history that was fun. Some people may say that her sometimes snarky style makes light of the events, but quite the contrary, I say that her style makes the people easier to relate to - it makes them like people and not like crusty stiffs in an old oil painting. I felt like I got to know and love Lafayette.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Paula
  • Coastal southern New England
  • 11-12-15

Enjoyable history, if you can get past narrator...

The author is well informed and witty. The subject is well researched and the book is well written. With her tongue planted firmly in her cheek, the author narrates her own book. She does her written word a disservice. The author has a voice for movies - silent movies. I have a certain tolerance for voices and unfortunately for me the author's voice falls outside of my acceptable limits. She is described as droll, I read it more as nasal, flat and monotonous, there are barely perceptible glimmers of a tonal change when she is delivering a witticism. BARELY perceptible. It is a good thing she has some help here, the other narrators break up the sameness of her pitch. So, I loved the subject matter and her writing style and approach, but she should steer clear of future narrative endeavors. She should literally take her tongue out of her cheek when she talks, stop narrating her own books and keep writing in her own sardonic way. Love what she has to say on the page, I just don't enjoy having her read it to me.

7 of 9 people found this review helpful

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You likely haven't heard it this way...

I'm largely conservative and the author at a minimum is not. That said, it's refreshing to hear the perspective presented here. The research was clearly thorough, and while her liberal leaning is clear, it's neither distracting nor offensive. Her wit and sarcasm are entertaining and for the most part, spot on. Her conclusions whether correct or incorrect, are at a minimum, plausible. She really drives home the point that the average American of today has no idea of the sacrifices of France to establish our country and has forgotten our huge debt to them. A good read for anyone, regardless of political persuasion so long as your comfortable listening to someone whose opinion/interpretation of events may be different than the old story of yesteryear.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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too clever and snarky for words

How did the narrator detract from the book?

you would need to have a similarly clever/snarky personality to the author to enjoy this book, especially as read by the author; the inserted voices for the different characters only added to the clever/snarky feel; many will love this, and that's wonderful; others will say "enough already" after the first hour

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Story good, performance not so good

Make sure you listen to the sample before buying. I found the narrator (author) irritating. This is of course personal.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful