Two Enthralling Tales of Unlikely Success
One of the best books this year is "Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League" by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a rags-to-riches story with a twist.
A young boy grows up in poverty in New York and spends much of his childhood in homeless shelters. His father, unable to find work, moves back home to the Dominican Republic. Mom stays, living a bare-bones existence, but never loses sight of her son studying hard and doing better. He loves reading and dumpster dives for discarded books, not skateboards.
A teacher notices that Dan-el is incredibly intelligent and deep for his age. Peralta lands a scholarship to Collegiate, a boys' school in Manhattan. He sails through, a popular but guarded teenager, as he keeps a secret and goes off to Princeton, where he graduates at the top of his class. He is chosen to study at Oxford but there’s a risk to accepting the honor: Peralta’s mother overstayed her visa, and he’s been illegal ever since. If he left the country, he might not get back in.
He took the risk. He went to Oxford and returned on a visa to earn his doctorate in classics at Stanford. But Peralta was still living in limbo, even though he married an American last year.
Several presidential candidates are campaigning on a platform to send other Dreamers back to the countries where they were born. "Undocumented" is more persuasive than any policy paper. Peralta stands for all the others whose stories won’t make it into a book but whose lives are equally poignant: the sins or virtue of a father or mother, visited upon thousands of sons and daughters living exemplary lives in the U.S. who may nonetheless be evicted.
Peralta tells his story with the elegance and insight you would expect form someone steeped in Ovid and Homer. Netflix should be looking at his story for a six-part series. By the time it’s done, if U.S. politicians have any sense, it could have a Hollywood ending.
'MR. AND MRS. DISRAELI'
Shelves groan with books about Winston Churchill and his highly strung bride Clementine Hozier. A mostly sunny union, it was nonetheless marked by huge rows with Clemmy famously throwing a dish of spinach at the prime minister.
Less chronicled is the marriage of Benjamin Disraeli and Mary Anne Lewis. That ends with "Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance" by Daisy Hay.
And strange it is -- think "House of Cards" meets "Downton Abbey," although no one gets murdered. The best nonfiction reads like fiction with its ups and downs, perils and resolutions, and sometimes happy endings not reliably found in real life.
It was an unlikely pairing: the great 19th-century statesman Benjamin Disraeli marrying a seaman’s daughter 12 years older. It looked like a marriage of convenience. Disraeli was brilliant but destitute and Jewish; Mary Anne was a clever and wealthy widow.
Hay begins with Mary Anne’s story, a rocky one where she didn’t know her father and was brought up on a working farm by her mother and grandparents. But she grew up to be the belle of every ball, “a petite beautiful flirt with a mass of kiss curls” who left men longing for her attention. She landed a successful industrialist and Tory MP, who died young, leaving her a woman of means. After a respectful lapse of time, she married Disraeli, beginning a merger as much as a marriage. The wedding drowned out the rumors of his homosexuality.
The early days were tense for two strong personalities, with the usual peaks and valleys, but as Disraeli climbed to the top of the greasy pole (he coined the phrase), she wielded the WD-40 every slippery step of the way.
His first big post came in 1852 when he was asked to be chancellor of the exchequer. When the author of "Vivian Grey" admitted he wasn’t given to numbers, he was told “they give you the figures.” His success as chancellor was something of an aphrodisiac for the couple. Mary Anne became more devoted, he more attentive. A calculated union ended up a real one. When Mary Anne became ill, Disraeli called her “the soul of his house.” He chose to be buried with her.
Among Hay’s stock of letters are love poems. In one, Disraeli writes that he wished to be "the flea/That is biting your knee" (shades of Prince Charles and Camilla).
Well, we can’t all be John and Abigail Adams. Soon Disraeli arrived at the top of the pole, a two-time prime minister under Queen Victoria, who thought his wife gossipy and vulgar, dripping with as much jewelry, feathers and bows as one body could support. Mary Anne once laid a table with a centerpiece consisting of a working windmill in a small pond with goldfish a-swimming.
But the Disraelis weren’t aiming for approval from the swells but from the so-called common man. Benjamin and Mary Anne loved each other, and people loved them for it, setting off a century of competitive wedded bliss. Hay makes the link to modern politics where marriages are a feature, not a sideshow. The next time you see political couples holding hands like besotted teenagers, and retailing cute stories about socks left on the floor and pancakes flipped on the weekends, you can thank Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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