It’s February of 1992, and James Smale, a 31-year-old New Yorker and aspiring writer, is invited to meet an editor at Doubleday who has read a draft of his novel. Imagine his surprise when that editor turns out to be Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Courtesy of G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it: In “The Editor,” Portland-bred Steven Rowley does the heavy lifting for you. He has also done his research, explaining in his acknowledgments that he read up on Jackie’s “extraordinary third act” before fabricating an odd-couple working friendship that plays out during the last two years of her astonishing life.

Although James’ initial meeting with Jackie goes as smoothly as a typical first date (“How tall was Charles de Gaulle?” he blurts at one point), she tells him that she will buy his novel, a thinly veiled treatment of James’s thorny relationship with his mother. His manuscript has a trouble spot, though: Jackie feels that the ending doesn’t work. She is convinced that only by visiting his mother in Ithaca will James be able to figure out the conclusion to his book. “Every mother has a story,” Jackie tells him while they are enjoying Cape Cods at her Martha’s Vineyard home, where she has invited James to chat about his manuscript. “Ask her about hers.”

In a semi-comic novel like “The Editor,” there’s no way that Thanksgiving dinner can proceed without incident. Sure enough, when James and the rest of the family are gathered at his childhood home, his mother, Aileen, fires off a major revelation. Never mind what it means for James’s book; what does it mean for his life?

How easy it would have been for a novel with such a spectacular premise to go wrong. If Jackie came across as larger than life, verisimilitude would have suffered. If she came across as smaller than life, the reader would have been disappointed. Rowley, the author of the best-selling “Lily and the Octopus,” gets Jackie exactly right: She has all the expected savoir faire (she keeps supplies for making daiquiris in her office) but doesn’t present as a caricature.

This introduces a wee problem: Jackie is so charismatic in “The Editor” that we miss her when she’s not in a scene, and the rueful Aileen just can’t pick up the slack. Fortunately, it’s a pleasure to be in narrator James’ constant company; his ready self-deprecation and congenial persnicketiness (we catch him “refolding a map to restore the integrity of its original pleats”) are winning.

James’ crisis with his boyfriend feels manufactured, and there’s a bit too much talk of “healing,” “cleansing” and such in scenes revolving around James’s desire to repair his relationship with his mother — “SHOW, DON’T TELL!” Jackie might have written in the margins. Still, there’s something marvelously authentic-seeming about James’s and Jackie’s conversations, especially when they touch on commonalities among mothers of a certain generation – even mothers as different as Jackie and Aileen. As James tells his mom at one point, she and Jackie are “both my editor, cutting scenes from my story, sending the narrative in different directions.”

Nell Beram, coauthor of “Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies,” has recently written for Bright Lights Film Journal, The Cut, and L’Officiel.


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