Killer Jewels: Cartier’s Hope

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Review: Cartier’s Hope, by M.J. Rose
Atria, 2020. 322 pp. $27

Vera Garland would be the envy of most New York women in 1910. Born to a socialite mother and a merchant father whose retail emporium is a household word, Vera has never wanted for any material possession. Nor would she lack the leisure to enjoy them, should she choose. But she doesn’t; she dreams of making her mark in journalism.

To that end, she writes a society gossip column in her gilded-set voice, while, as Vee Swann, she reports on back-alley abortions, tenement life, and corporate malfeasance. She’s got no time or interest in her mother’s plans for her, to wit, a wealthy husband and a career in society. The conflict splits the family, but Vera gets to do what she wants.

Maintaining Vera’s two different personae takes a great deal of sweat (and a little credulity on her friends’ parts, not to mention the reader’s). But it makes a great story, and getting trapped in one identity while needing to be in the other, though an old device, offers excellent possibilities, which Rose ably exploits. Vera wants revenge against the extortionist who brought about her uncle’s and father’s deaths within a week of each other. And the key to her scheme lies within Cartier’s, the world-class jewelers whose premises she may visit with ceremony and complimentary champagne as Vera Garland, but where, as Vee Swann, she’d never expect an audience.

The Hope Diamond, on display at the National Museum of Natural History, New York (courtesy David Bjorgen via Wikimedia Commons)

Her plan has to do with the Hope Diamond, whose lore of danger and ill fortune to its succession of owners furnishes grist for Pierre Cartier’s publicity mill. How that dovetails with bringing down an extortionist, I leave for you to discover.

Plot is by far the strongest aspect of Cartier’s Hope and just about the only reason to read the novel. It’s a good reason, though. In the interest of full disclosure, my taste runs toward character-driven narratives — as though you might not have guessed — because some plot-driven novels pay little or no attention to subtlety. So too here, in ways I’ll discuss further down. Yet I have to admire how Rose strings out the story, layering twist after twist, making her protagonist work, so that nothing comes easily, and the “no — and furthermore” feels genuine. Rose also keeps you guessing without tricking you. She’s a generous writer that way; if anyone falls for a misperception or misdirection, it’s Vera/Vee.

The plain prose never draws attention to itself, and Rose limits her descriptions largely to interiors, with sparse, thoughtful detail. The author loves New York, and it shows in the locales portrayed as they were, whether tenements, newsrooms, or the Plaza Hotel. I trust her research in general, though I did find one anachronism: Traffic lights didn’t exist back then.

More troublesome are the language and the characters, who speak and think like latter twentieth-century folk, or even those of the present day. I don’t just mean words or phrases like accessorize or reach out to, but the manner in which people discuss their ideas. Vee and her journalist friends, passionate about women’s rights, seem like retro creations, modern sensibilities and worldviews dropped into 1910. It doesn’t help that some of these scenes feel like information dumps.

But it’s not just the political or social milieu that strikes me wrong. Vera’s father sounds like a gifted psychotherapist as well as a brilliant retailer, a wonderfully thoughtful, considerate man. He’s made one mistake, a whopper, but seems perfect otherwise. Ditto Vera’s love interest, who could be a midcentury intellectual. He’s done one bad thing too, but there are mitigating circumstances, to be sure. These people are too good to be true.

Rose often explains what a character’s trying to do or has just done when it’s obvious. That authorial hand not only feels condescending, as if the reader can’t be trusted to get the idea, but prompts you to wonder what other manipulations are taking place. A skeptical reader (guilty, Your Honor) might suspect sleight-of-hand in the storytelling.

Still, Cartier’s Hope offers that intriguing plot, with legends about jewels thrown in. If that’s your style, you could do a lot worse.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

What It Means to Be a Woman: Light Changes Everything

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Review: Light Changes Everything, by Nancy E. Turner
St. Martin’s, 2020. 290 pp. $28

Mary Pearl Prine isn’t your average seventeen-year-old. She can ride, shoot, and rope, which, in the Arizona Territory of 1907, would seem pretty usual, except that few other young women of her acquaintance can do likewise, or care to. Mary Pearl can also speak her mind — sometimes — and can draw, which sets her even further apart. What’s more, she dreams of being an artist, and against her mother’s wishes, enrolls in Wheaton College in Chicago to study art.

Just before she leaves, however, Aubrey Hannah, a handsome, moneyed, citified lawyer, proposes marriage. Having read Jane Austen, Mary Pearl has heard that a woman needs a wealthy husband to succeed in life. Though Aubrey’s shotgun approach to betrothal — grab and kiss, importune for the rest — puts her off, she’s physically attracted. Still, she has just enough gumption to ask him, by letter, to wait until she’s finished her two-year course of study.

But college upends Mary Pearl’s world. She’s never before been the butt of snobbish humor for her manners, speech, dress, or frontier skills, which quickly become legend around campus. But she learns valuable lessons about growing up, not least how to exercise her nascent gift for standing up for herself, especially when she feels she’s being treated as a second-class citizen, whether as a Westerner or a woman. Still, though she finds nice dresses and urban conveniences seductive, at root, she suspects the city and its ways:

What a wagonload of nonsense was life in this big city. Not a speck of interest in where their water came from, nor whether there was enough for their neighbors to eat. Just busy with doing things and having things I wouldn’t even know I didn’t have, which included crystal punch bowls and harp lessons.

Turner’s storytelling range in this coming-of-age novel includes betrayal, sexual and armed violence, the pain of longing, and hilarious situations. From the start, you sense Mary Pearl’s spirit and confusion about asserting herself, and I like how the author refuses to let her rush into choices she must make, given the familial and societal pressures she feels as a woman. You also understand where Mary Pearl gets her feminism, from her Aunt Sarah, who’s a real rip, and who can trade fire in words or bullets with anybody, male or female. From her, Mary Pearl has learned she has a place in the world, and she holds that thought tenaciously, even if she can’t always express it to others.

Whether in spoken word or contained thought, however, Mary Pearl’s voice lets fly. When Mama says that only hussies go to college, Mary Pearl reflects on her well-used, hand-me-down clothes, ratty workboots, and ragged sunbonnet, “hardly the picture of a fallen woman, unless a person meant she’d fallen down a mine shaft.” Witnessing her first (and probably last) ballet in Chicago, “it was embarrassing watching all those men and women tromping around in their tightest underwear and spinning and leaping with their legs and arms held out peculiar. I expected any second that someone would split their britches and all kinds of buck-naked silliness could follow, but it didn’t happen.”

I’d have preferred the villain of this piece to show more depth. He’s so completely odious, convinced of his power to buy whatever he wants and have everything his own way, that he’s cardboard. I believe what he does; it’s not that. I just want nuance to him, maybe a window on why he behaves that way.

At times in Light Changes Everything, I wonder whether Turner’s indulging in reverse snobbery, depicting her city folk as less caring or more prejudiced than country folk, to a point approaching caricature. Except close to the end, the city characters generally seem superficial, selfish, or small-minded, with motives so very different from Mary Pearl’s that neither she nor anybody else can really grasp them. Rather, I’d have liked to see her find more to respect in them and vice versa, however awkward the culture clash. The narrative seldom allows them to view her as more than a bauble or an entertaining object of conversation, whereas they appear to exist purely as foils, when they might have worth in their own right.

But Light Changes Everything has enough humor, strength, and pure delight to power through, and the novel makes an excellent coming-of-age story.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my connection to Historical Novels Review.

Fission in Two Parts: Hannah’s War

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Review: Hannah’s War, by Jan Eliasberg
Little, Brown, 2020. 301 pp. $17

In April 1945, U.S. intelligence has uncovered a security leak at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the Manhattan Project is building the atomic bomb. Suspicion falls most heavily on the scientists who’ve circulated a petition demanding ethical constraints on the weapon they’ve worked to invent, whose destructive power remains theoretical. What’s more, one signatory has just sent a telegram to her German counterparts in Europe, presumably to convey military secrets.

Said scientist, the only woman at Los Alamos with a high security clearance, is Dr. Hannah Weiss, an Austrian-Jewish physicist. She’s beautiful, brilliant, and tough to corner, a job that falls to Jack Delaney, superspy and seasoned interrogator. He has seventy-two hours to find out what, if anything, Hannah has told her friends in Germany.

Eliasberg tells this story in two narratives. With the Los Alamos story, she seamlessly integrates Hannah’s prewar work at the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where, despite her exceptional gifts, she’s consigned to a basement laboratory, her findings ignored. “Jewish science” can possess no truth in Nazi Germany. Eliasberg says that she has based Hannah on Lise Meitner, who received no credit for discovering nuclear fission, because Otto Hahn, with whom she had worked closely, left her name off the paper they published in 1939 so that their research would be taken seriously. Further, at his Nobel address in 1944, he conveniently omitted mentioning her. That in itself is a story, and though the novel follows a different path from her actual life, the Berlin narrative raises similar historical issues and derives tension from them.

Unfortunately, the Los Alamos sections don’t measure up. To be fair, Eliasberg, a screenwriter, keeps the pages turning rapidly throughout, and her dialog punches hard. When Jack and Hannah square off, the verbal jousting sets off sparks. Better yet, the cat-and-mouse contest does more than furnish the necessities of thrillerdom; the interrogation covers questions of science and morality, the power of life and death, responsibility to individuals versus society at large. I also believe the re-creation of Los Alamos, with its hard partying, personal rivalries, and the tension and desperation of discovery with the world’s future at stake.

But I don’t accept the premise. They’re too quick in Los Alamos to slap handcuffs on Hannah and string her up, the stated justification for which runs as follows: Why would a Jewish refugee collaborate with the enemy? Because she must have slept with that enemy. I’m sure such sexist, anti-Semitic logic had its followers; General Leslie Groves, who commanded the Los Alamos installation, was a nasty piece of work, bigoted and ambitious, as the author portrays him here. But that army or intelligence brass would rush to try Hannah before a military tribunal, threatening to hang her before you can say, “Albert Einstein,” stretches credulity. They would certainly have done more to figure out which secrets she’d passed, and what they were worth.

Are her friends working for Germany or the Soviets? The narrative waffles, and faced with that vagueness, the American spymasters plan to kill off famous German scientists right and left, a hasty, perplexing verdict. It’s also puzzling how, even in April 1945, everyone assumes the European conflict will go on forever, ignoring how Germany was in its last gasps.

In reality, battles still took place, but the Reich posed a greater threat to its citizens judged defeatist than its foreign enemies, and was certainly in no condition to develop or deliver an atomic weapon. Yet, somehow, the Los Alamos scientists greet the news of Germany’s collapse as a surprise.

With the exception of Groves, the army and intelligence characters feel flat, and the way they strut and shout gives the impression that they’re trying not to admit how empty and wrongheaded they are. Even Jack, who receives more authorial care, strikes me as a stock character, the rough, tough guy with the usual manly trappings, who needs the right woman to let him be vulnerable. His role in the novel’s resolution, a clumsy, predictable section, wraps the story briskly but, like the rest of the Los Alamos plot, remains forgettable.

Compare that to the Berlin narrative. As before, surprises and twists abound, but the people seem natural, deeper, more complex. Special kudos to Eliasberg for creating characters whose Jewishness feels real, not a matter of convenience, as evidence of which they spend time and effort trying to practice their faith and cope with anti-Semitic decrees. But the non-Jewish scientists who believe they have their handlers by the tail, only to find out the opposite, make an impression too. As a result, the tension feels higher here than in the other narrative, even though the bomb hasn’t been built yet, and the threats against Hannah are only potential.

Given all that, would the Lise Meitner/Hannah Weiss narrative have made a thriller by itself? It’s a great story, that’s for sure, the gripping part of Hannah’s War.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via an independent publicist, in return for an honest review.

Speaking Her Mind: The Eulogist

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Review: The Eulogist, by Terry Gamble
Morrow, 2019. 310 pp. $27

When fifteen-year-old Olivia (Livvie) Givens and her family emigrate from Ireland to America in 1819, disaster haunts them from the start. Their ship nearly founders in an Atlantic storm, so the captain jettisons most of their worldly goods, including a piano. When they finally settle in Cincinnati, Livvie’s mother dies in childbirth, and her father leaves on a river boat headed for New Orleans.

Livvie and her two brothers must now fend for themselves, barely possessing the proverbial pot, and, as she notes, the future looks most unpromising. Her elder brother James, astute, ambitious, and hard-working, may have a head for business, but he lacks both capital or gift for conversation, so he’s unlikely to attract investors, let alone a wife. The other brother, Erasmus, “not right in the head,” has no talents except seduction and debauchery and can’t be trusted to carry out any task James gives him.

However, James digs in, and over the years, his grit and determination pay off. Erasmus turns preacher, wandering off, abandoning his responsibilities, as usual. Livvie picks up various pieces of their lives and takes political stands that cause an uproar, as when she expresses doubts about God’s supremacy. The good people of Cincinnati don’t take freethinking lying down, and Livvie’s observations provide a vivid picture of striving America in those years, with all the flies, smells, and pretensions, not to mention political strife.

Cincinnati, seen from the north, 1841, by Klauprech and Menzel. The foreground depicts the Miami and Erie Canal; the Ohio River and Kentucky are in the background (courtesy New York Public Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s my favorite aspect of The Eulogist, how Gamble paints her American portrait with finesse and well-chosen detail. Even better, Livvie’s wit makes you laugh:

Clearly, she had her cap set on my brother. Hatsepha, with her wide, bland face and badly spelled name that gave a nod to the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. Today, her head was a bowery of satin roses stuck all about. I fancied a swarm of bees might rush through the window in a frenzy of pollination.

But just when you think you’re getting a novel of manners, the narrative and tone shift. Cincinnati lies close to Kentucky, where slavery is legal, and as the years progress, that issue dominates public life. Livvie, who begins the novel naturally opposed to slavery while refusing to take a meaningful stand, becomes an ardent abolitionist, though for her safety, she must be discreet. I like how Gamble handles the transformation, which extends to Livvie’s influence on her family.

I also admire how, with authority over the smallest intricacies, the author demonstrates how the slaves suffer, how risky and terrifying their attempts to flee to Ohio, and the lengths to which patrols and bounty hunters searching for runaways and their “abettors” take brutal revenge. Along the way, Campbell creates memorable minor characters, like the cranky Kentucky store owner who’s an “abettor,” and Salmon P. Chase, the ambitious attorney well known to history, who defends a slave in a case in which Livvie has a central interest.

That said, The Eulogist’s shift in tone and substance comes as a surprise. I would have been better prepared had I consulted the jacket flap, but, as my regular readers know, I don’t until after I’ve read the book. In this case, I’m doubly glad. Not only does this one make the shortlist for the Worst Ever Jacket Copy Prize, going on forever and revealing far too much plot, you might think The Eulogist is more essay than novel, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Even so, I have to say that the two halves of the book don’t entirely fit, and not just because the voice changes. Does the first part serve only to cement Livvie’s iconoclasm, so that you can accept her unusual political stance and activities later? I don’t think that’s necessary; and I object to how the author contrives the mystery of certain characters’ origins, which involves a trick or three and yet another layer to a narrative that’s complicated enough. And as long as we’re talking about devices, neither Livvie nor her brothers even think of their late mother, the stillborn sibling who died with her, or their father, vanished forever. That seems a little convenient.

Still, The Eulogist makes for fine storytelling, and I think that those readers who pick it up will be rewarded.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Family Snapshots: Summer of ’69

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Review: Summer of ’69, by Elin Hilderbrand
Little, Brown, 2019. 418 pp. $28

For Kate Foley Levin, the annual family pilgrimage in summer 1969 to her mother’s home in Nantucket will feel sparse and lonely. Her only son has been drafted and is an infantry grunt in Vietnam; any moment, she expects the telegram announcing his death. Kate responds by withdrawing to finds solace in the bottle. Meanwhile, her eldest, pregnant daughter can’t leave Boston to join the family, for her due date is weeks away, and she’s too uncomfortable to travel. Said daughter also suspects her geeky MIT husband, who consults for the Apollo space program, is cheating on her. The next eldest daughter, a contentious soul, has annoyed Kate by making a mess of college and getting arrested at protest marches. But she won’t be there to bother anyone, because she has a job on Martha’s Vineyard, where, unbeknownst to Mom, she falls for a Harvard man who happens to be black.

Jessie Levin, half-sister to these siblings (her father, David, is Kate’s second husband) needs her mother more than ever. Just turned thirteen, she feels utterly bereft without her family, especially her half-brother, to whom she’s very close. She’s also fighting several losing battles, most notably with her bigoted, vicious grandmother, Exalta, which Kate might have helped with, but forget that. One firefight concerns Jessie’s identification with her (purely cultural) Jewishness, a link she shares with her father; she’s freaked out that Exalta’s an anti-Semite.

So we’ve got the Vietnam War, to which the Levins and Foleys are opposed, and a son at risk. We have possible marital infidelity, alcoholism, political protest, interracial romance, and anti-Semitism. As if that weren’t enough, we have sexual and physical abuse, feminism, Jessie’s sexual awakening, and abortion. And oh, yes, Jessie’s reading The Diary of Anne Frank for school. Summer of ’69 purports to be beach reading, but that’s one hell of a load.

Neil Armstrong’s photograph of Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface, July 21, 1969 (courtesy NASA, via Wikimedia Commons)

What we don’t have is the Sixties — the lingo, the vibe, the sense that this was an unusual decade, the belief that so much was possible yet so much was wrong, and that you felt compelled to take sides and make a statement. Hilderbrand shows none of that. She’s strong on fashion, issues, and headlines, but those are period details, museum exhibits. The summer of 1969 was my last before my senior year of high school, so we share a fascination for that moment (she was born that July). But, much as I enjoy re-creations of that time and salute her attempt, I don’t think she gets it.

In her favor, she can keep the pages turning. She’s a keen observer of family dynamics, and she manages to thread several narratives without missing a stitch. In her world, people don’t talk to each other, and the closer they are by blood, the less they say, because they have secrets to hide. She also has a friendly, drop-in-for-a-chat-dear-reader tone that makes her narrative pleasant company, like an easy-listening radio station.

But Hilderbrand’s ease cuts two ways. Despite the pain the characters suffer and the issues she raises, which couldn’t be more momentous, the treatment feels one-dimensional, like posed family snapshots. Everything seems too far away to hurt anybody for real. With so much simmering conflict and so little honesty, you’d think more would explode, and that’s why I finished the book. I wanted to know how Hilderbrand would resolve these conflicts—and I now know I wandered into Never-Never Land.

One problem’s the characterization. Kate’s controlling and craven by turns, and it’s not clear why. David’s a good guy with no depth, and the older sisters represent themes but lack compelling internal lives. Jesse’s the only character who seems reflective about what matters:

Jessie thought all grown-ups lived in a different atmosphere, one that was like a cool, clear gel. Adults had problems, Jessie knew — money and their children — but one of the benefits of reaching adulthood, she thought, was that you outgrew the raw, hot, chaotic emotions of adolescence.

Yet this girl, intelligent and emotionally tuned in, gets upset that Anne Frank dies; she thinks the book shouldn’t have ended like that. The Holocaust! Who knew? Hilderbrand warps her narrative up, down, and sideways to let her characters find redemption and forgiveness and throws in the world’s most famous Holocaust victim, as though Anne defined those values. But don’t get me started on writers who co-opt a Jewish girl as a Christian saint, a Joan of Arc who turned the other cheek–a travesty encouraged, in part, by Anne’s father, who sanitized his daughter’s diary for publication.

Let’s stay with Jessie, a perceptive, nominally Jewish child whose brother’s in the Viet Cong’s crosshairs. Her heart’s been broken, and she has a sense of painful reality, even if she doesn’t always understand the why or how. Maybe she unconsciously connects her brother’s fate with Anne’s. They’re both so good; how can they die?

That’s a worthy question, but Hilderbrand doesn’t stay there. Having shown how bad things can almost happen to good people, she bails them out by snapping her authorial fingers, relieving them of the hard work of living. Maybe that’s what a beach book is supposed to do, keep you at a distance from work. But in relying on that illusion of substance, Summer of ’69 trivializes its subject matter.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Cosmic Shift: Park Avenue Summer

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Review: Park Avenue Summer, by Renée Rosen
Berkeley, 2019. 338 pp. $16

When twenty-one-year-old Alice Weiss arrives in New York in 1965 from Youngstown, Ohio, to make her fortune, she dreams of becoming a photographer. However, the job she finds is secretary to Helen Gurley Brown, author of the scandalous bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl, recently named by publishing giant Hearst to resurrect the then-flailing Cosmopolitan magazine. By the time Alice figures out what has hit her, her life has been changed forever.

“Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.” Helen Gurley Brown in 1964, by John Bottega, World Telegram staff photographer (courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Alice represents the New York office world and what was then called a “gal Friday,” because, like her namesake in Robinson Crusoe, she does everything. That involves getting coffee or lunch, typing correspondence, taking phone calls, managing appointments, taking minutes at meetings, picking up Brown’s pets from the vet, running other personal errands, working hellacious hours, and receiving unsolicited advice about life, men, and career. Most significantly to the story, Alice must decide whether to fend off the advances of a very attractive Don Juan executive who might be plotting against Brown, only one aspect of the complex office politics.

Forces within Hearst want to kill Cosmo and see Brown fail. Her superiors (all male, of course) nearly lose their lunches when they see how she plans to imbue the magazine with her frank vision of female sexuality, starting with provocative covers and articles about orgasms. Rosen brilliantly captures how an unrepentant woman occupying a corner office goes about making her mark — or how this inimitable woman does, anyway.

Brown’s feminism is decidedly heterodox, though, for her creed includes at least two dubious propositions: that a woman can and should use her physical attraction to advance her career; and that every woman should bed a Mr. Wrong, a skirt chaser with too much magnetism for anyone’s good, just to “get that out of her system.” For contrast, Rosen has Alice attend a lecture by Betty Friedan, where she hears a more appealing philosophy, though she remains loyal to Brown and sees wisdom in her mentor too.

Which fits, because Alice’s life reflects the story’s feminist themes, and Rosen deftly weaves the two narratives of Cosmo and her protagonist. But Brown’s the star here, the definition of larger-than-life, consummate actress, constantly outré, loyal to her friends, but always the center of attention. She’s good to Alice — mostly — but doesn’t listen particularly well, and her protégée needs that above all.

I’d never before met a woman who cried as often or with as much gusto as Helen Gurley Brown. Every upset and hurt, every frustration and disappointment, got washed away with her tears and an occasional eyelash or two. After a particularly hard crying jag, the kind that left her eyes puffy, she’d remove her wig and submerge her face in a bowl of ice water, holding her breath for as long as she could stand it. Afterward I’d hand her a towel and guard her door while she reapplied her makeup and reappeared, looking fresh-faced and perfectly composed.
I was shocked by her tears at first because I was just the opposite. I hadn’t let myself cry since my mother died.

I like how Rosen seldom cuts an emotional moment too short and lets Alice feel deeply even though a whole lot is going on. One notable exception: Brown uses Alice as a prop during a presentation to potential advertisers in an exploitive way, yet the young woman only blushes, harboring no anger. But otherwise, Rosen’s protagonist has much to deal with, and the author honors that without flinching.

Nevertheless, two aspects of Alice’s life seem empty, or nearly so. First, she’s nominally Jewish, but, aside from fleeting references that suggest its importance to her, she doesn’t live it. I’ve never been to Youngstown, but I’m betting there’s a hell of a difference between being Jewish there and in New York; shouldn’t Alice register this, especially since she feels lonely in her new environment? But she never even has cause to wonder that there seem many more of her coreligionists around; nobody ever pegs her as Jewish, whatever that means to them, or her; and her unabashed passion for certain nonkosher foods wants explaining.

Secondly, I don’t entirely believe this novel takes place in the mid-1960s, and not just because the dialogue occasionally includes present-day business-speak or idioms. The clothing styles, sexual attitudes, and workplace mores feel right, but there’s no Sixties vibe — no slang, manners, street life, or sense that the country is at war, in Vietnam and with itself (conflicts that would emerge even more strongly within the next two or three years). Nobody even thinks about those issues, and though Alice spends time in Greenwich Village, I get no hint of protest, counterculture, or avant-garde.

But Helen Gurley Brown did leave her mark. If you’d like a glimpse of what she did at Cosmo, Park Avenue Summer is an entertaining, often poignant story of a young woman struggling with heartbreak and dreams that feel beyond reach.

Disclaimer: I obtained by reading copy of this book from the public library.

Holocaust Hallucination: Cesare

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Review: Cesare, by Jerome Charyn
Bellevue, 2020. 365 pp. $27

Berlin, 1943. Amid Germany’s war against the world and murder of European Jewry, there are many secrets dangerous to know, not least that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of military intelligence, has a private agenda. Whenever he can, he hides Jews, mostly German Jews, of whom a few thousand may still be found in the capital. Most are tenuously protected by marriage to Christians; others live underground in ghettos that even the SS doesn’t bother to penetrate. But the biggest secret is that Canaris uses his best agent, the widely celebrated Cesare, to try to make sure these hunted people stay safe.

Er, wait. The head of the Abwehr rescues Jews? His best agent’s persona is a household word?

Wilhelm Canaris, executed for treason weeks before the war ended, remains a mystery as to the extent of his dissidence. This photo dates from 1940 (courtesy German Federal Archives, via Wikimedia Commons)

While floating through the dream that is this novel, once or twice I had to check the historical record, just for grounding. Concerning one particularly stunning instance, which I can’t divulge because it would give too much away, I found that Charyn reports history as it happened. So however strange Cesare may be, the truth may be even stranger. Does it matter?

No. And there’s plenty of powerful fiction here, starting with the protagonist. Cesare’s real name is Erik Holdermann; six years earlier, in 1937, he rescued a tramp from a severe beating by a group of hoodlums. The tramp was Canaris, and that made Erik’s fortune. But what he does with it is something else. Cesare takes his sobriquet from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, an expressionist film of 1920 in which Conrad Veidt (remember him as Major Strasser, in Casablanca?) plays a somnambulist slave who sleeps in a coffin and murders people while in a dream state. And just as Dr. Caligari explored the horrors that occur between sleep and wakefulness, consciousness and oblivion, Charyn wants to show you the nightmare that built and characterizes the Third Reich, not least of which is its citizens’ refusal to face their murderous reality.

This warped image describes life from the ground up, at least for a certain privileged class. Every form of entertainment attacked as “degenerate” by the regime exists within blocks of Gestapo headquarters, tolerated by the authorities, many of whom enjoy its frenzies. Such dualities apply everywhere. Cesare’s great, obsessive love, Lisalein von Hecht, the half-Jewish daughter of a banker, plays many roles, or appears to — his ally and protector, his betrayer, wife of a Party muckamuck, lover of a cabaret chanteuse, communist, rescuer of Jews. Her father helped bankroll Hitler because he feared the Reds more than the Nazis and assumed the vulgar corporal would be easily managed. Even Cesare himself, though not Jewish, was looked after by Jewish prostitutes as a young orphan; and when he must penetrate an inner sanctum he can’t enter any other way, despite his reputed shape-shifting skills, he wears a black uniform of the SS. To the Jews, there’s no doubt about his identity:

The ghetto had its own golem, not twisted out of clay, but a man of bone, blood, and gristle, born in Berlin. This golem had never harmed a single Jew. He often traveled about in the boots and silver sleeves of an SS captain. How wily their golem was. He mimicked their enemies, and could make a gauleiter [district leader] disappear. And if their savior was a somnambulist beholden to a white-haired German admiral, what could it matter to them? The coffin Herr Cesare slept in was secreted somewhere in [the Jewish ghetto]. And woe to any man who rocked that coffin and interfered with Cesare’s sleep.

With such portrayals and references — throw in Kafka and Melville — Cesare is a literary novel par excellence. But it’s also a disturbing, hallucinatory thriller, with as many plot twists and double crosses as the number of angels capable of dancing on the head of a pin. Throughout, the author immerses you in the hell that was the Third Reich. As with other thrillers, there’s plenty of sex, but it’s mostly desperate, typical of German activities then, rather than erotic. At times, it’s hard to tell whether female characters are mere sex objects (sometimes for each other), or whether Charyn’s trying to turn James Bond on his perfect, Casanova head.

What I do know is that Cesare possesses the reader, in a howl of pain and madness. Yet I didn’t feel suffocated, only glad I could close the cover and realize I wasn’t living inside it. And with this novel, Charyn has shown me what fiction can do.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

A Different Kind of Thriller: The Second Sleep

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Review: The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris
Knopf, 2019. 298 pp. $27

In 1468, the bishop of Exeter sends a young priest, Father Christopher Fairfax, to a remote village to bury a parson who has just died in an accident. But when Father Fairfax gets there, he discovers that his late colleague collected antique books that the church and government have condemned as heretical. What’s more, at the funeral, a stranger interrupts the service to declare that the deceased’s death was no accident, nor did it result from witchcraft, as some have said — the accident site is thought to be haunted. To no surprise, more startling facts come Christopher’s way, and what he thought was a trip to perform a sacrament turns into something not at all routine, likely dangerous or compromising.

Shield of the See of Exeter, established in the tenth century (courtesy Hogweard, via Wikimedia Commons)

In The Second Sleep, then, do we have a murder mystery with a Gothic overlay? Is this another example of a trope, Killed by an Ancient Manuscript? Or, maybe, to play the book publicists’ game, this novel is The Name of the Rose meets Middlemarch.

None of the above. We’ve got a splendid, thought-provoking, unusual thriller, by a master on top of his game. I thought Harris slipped some with Munich, but The Second Sleep evokes the quality of Dictator and An Officer and a Spy. As with those novels, here, the pages gently exhale history like a subtle, authoritative scent, “no — and furthermores” pile up effortlessly, and the protagonist undergoes an arduous journey, changing in a way he couldn’t have predicted.

But there’s more, because Harris has bent to the genre to his will. As the narrative gradually makes clear, there’s something odd, not to say out of character, about this fifteenth-century English village. And as you continue to puzzle how this can be — for the details are too precise to be accidental, and Harris is a careful storyteller — you and Father Fairfax have something in common. You’re both due for a significant surprise.

However, as I said, this is a subtle, gradual reveal. Consider this paragraph from the fourth page, one that displays Harris’s fine prose as well as a hint of his intent:

After a while, the road began to ascend a wooded hillside. As it climbed, so it dwindled, until it was little better than a cart track — ridged brown earth covered loosely by stones, shards of soft slate and yellow gravel braided by the running rainwater. From the steep banks on either side rose the scent of wild herbs — lungwort, lemon balm, mustard garlic — while the overhanging branches drooped so low he had to duck and fend them off with his arm, dislodging further showers of fresh cold water that drenched his head and trickled down his sleeve. Something shrieked and flashed emerald in the gloom, and his heart seemed to jump halfway up his throat, even though he realised almost at once that it was nothing more sinister than a parakeet.

Parakeets? How’s that?

In finely wrought coherence of story and character, The Second Sleep takes on themes regarding knowledge, faith, reason, church and state, and human frailty. There’s even a touch of coming-of-age, for, like the best of Harris’s protagonists, Christopher faces severe challenges to his beliefs, character, and principles, and the narrative pushes the envelope at his expense. But the author neither lectures nor spells out anything unless he has to, which leaves room for the reader to think and feel — what a novel should do.

I’d say more about this fine book, but I fear giving too much away. Don’t read the blurbs on the back, though for once, the flap copy is safe. The Second Sleep will both entertain you and make you think.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Dreams of Freedom: The Parisian

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Review: The Parisian, by Isabella Hammad
Grove, 2019. 551 pp. $27

In 1914, young Midhat Kamal leaves Constantinople, where he’s graduated from a French lycée, for Montpellier, France, to study medicine. The relocation has two objects: to keep Midhat from being conscripted into the Ottoman army, therefore safe from the world war; and to become someone of whom his father can be proud. Father will demand his reckoning, that’s certain, for he’s a wealthy cloth merchant from Nablus, Ottoman Palestine, and a firm believer in traditional, hierarchical values.

Midhat, however, doesn’t quite see his father’s tyranny, despite having suffered from it his entire life. Such thoughts are unthinkable. But once in France, everything is thinkable, even sayable, often doable, and Midhat’s inner romantic flowers like a tree blooming in the desert. He falls in love with Jeanette, the daughter of the professor who offers him room and board, and maybe she returns his feelings. Subsequently, he goes to Paris, where he continues his studies, talks politics with Palestinian nationalists, and becomes a dandy and a seducer.

However, his inevitable return to Nablus shocks him to the core, and as he dutifully tries to reconstruct his life according to the traditions he’s been taught, he mourns his lost freedom, even as he makes the best of his circumstances. That’s what a man must do, he decides, fulfill his role as a proper son and heir to the family business.

Midhat’s inner struggle mirrors that of the Palestinian fight for independence. Hammad shows how his trust in French values gets crushed by colonial realities. But she also portrays the nationalists falling prey to rigid codes of honor that lead to self-destruction, when “flexibility,” as one broader-minded politician remarks, would be saner. So it is that telling one man’s fictional story depicts history.

Nevertheless, this brilliant, impressive novel — a debut, no less — almost sinks in the first hundred and fifty pages. The Montpellier narrative develops slowly, and Midhat’s character seems maddeningly concrete and restrained. To be fair, that’s culturally appropriate, and Hammad does a terrific job portraying her protagonist’s confusion as to language, customs, and behavior, suffering with an obsessive, overdeveloped sense of what people must think of him. Every failure, whether or not it really is a failure, feels like dishonor to Midhat. Still, though you understand why — especially in retrospect, which means those first hundred and fifty pages can feel like wandering — you want the young man to let looser within himself, even if no one else sees it.

But if you read The Parisian, which I highly recommend, don’t sink with the narrative. Tread water, and you’ll be rewarded. Once our hero connects with politics, then returns to Nablus, his character opens. Don’t be put off by the untranslated Arabic, usually honorifics or exclamations, which you don’t need to understand, nor the occasional French phrase. The plot, though simple, wields a very sharp blade, and I defy you to put the novel aside.

Palestinian women march against the British Mandate, Jerusalem, 1930; photographer unknown. The sign urges “no negotiations, no dialogue” until the Mandate ends (courtesy British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Ninety-nine percent of jacket blurbs are fluff and nonsense, but here’s an exception — Zadie Smith astutely remarks that Hammad has written in the tradition of Flaubert and Stendhal. Though I’m not yet ready to place Hammad on that exalted shelf, I see the comparison, visible in the filigree approach to the characters’ interactions as well as the prose, as in this scene with Jeanette in Montpellier:

A strong red blush started at her chest and covered her face. It was Midhat’s turn to look at the garden. He wanted to give her privacy, but he was also waiting for the grin to subside from his own cheeks. Outside, the clouds turned the grass grey, and the tree at the far end was animated with wind. When he looked back, Jeanette was still red, staring at her lap. Neither of them said anything. Something in Midhat’s chest began leaping wildly about as a fly zoomed into the silence and browsed the coffee things. Together they watched the fly inspecting the corner of a sugar cube, and then sitting on the silver rim, rubbing its hands together. He made a decision to look at her again. He found, to his amazement, that he was unable.

Also like the two nineteenth-century masters, Hammad has written a biography of one character standing for a time and place — think of Emma Bovary, Julien Sorel in Red and Black, or Fabrizio del Dongo in The Charterhouse of Parma. (If you don’t know these novels, grab a glass of wine, a comfortable chair, and dig in.) This is the most successful kind of biographical novel, I think, true to history yet unconstrained by having to set down the complete historical record, which doesn’t always squeeze into a fictional frame. Another similarity is that all three protagonists, like Midhat, have been educated in romantic ideals, which leave them unprepared for the cruelties of real life.

But perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Parisian, as with these predecessors, is Hammad’s authority as a storyteller: This is how it happened.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Two Shot: The Girls in the Picture

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Review: The Girls in the Picture, by Melanie Benjamin
Delacorte, 2018. 415 pp. $28

When would-be artist Frances Marion flees San Francisco for Los Angeles in 1914, the last thing she anticipates is falling in with the crowd of hopefuls knocking on the doors of those who produce “flickers,” as movies are popularly called. But Frances catches the bug too, and in a great stroke of luck, gains an introduction to Mary Pickford, the most beloved actress in America, who also has artistic control over her films. Luckier still, Mary and Frances take to one another on sight, and a famous partnership begins. With Marion as her screenwriter, Pickford will go on to even more dazzling heights, playing young girls in her famous blond curls and rosebud lips.

Director Marshall Neilan (far left), star Mary Pickford, screenwriter Frances Marion, September 1917, photographer unknown (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Frances’s first look at Hollywood may be idealized, but it sets the stage for what follows:

Far from being a barren cow town, the place seemed drenched in color, crimson and gold and purple and white flowers spilling out of every window box, embracing every streetlamp. I couldn’t stop gazing at the tall pepper trees, with their languid, lacy green leaves dripping with clusters of red berries, providing much-needed shade from a sun that rarely found a cloud behind which to hide — something this native San Franciscan thought she would never find tiresome. Orange groves dominated the mountainous landscape that sloped to the beckoning sea, the air so perfumed that I immediately craved the sweet, tangy fruit that I’d never really cared for before.

Naturally, La-La Land can’t remain milk and honey forever, with such large egos, salaries, and audiences in which to bask. And that is by no means the whole picture. As women at the peaks of their respective professions, Pickford and Marion become easy targets for jealousy and slander, with others waiting — hoping — for their fall, men in particular. The two friends often talk about such conniving men and vow they’ll never let a man come between them. Famous last words.

However, it’s not just the man-child Douglas Fairbanks who splits the friendship when he marries Mary, and whose powers of jealous manipulation know no limit. Within a few years, the advent of talkies overturns the silent screen, casting out those performers who can’t cope in the new medium (or are perceived incapable of it). Further, as producers consolidate their power—and the industry—they retain artistic control and subjugate their hired talent, women especially.

This history both enlivens The Girls in the Picture and undoes it. I like the behind-the-scenes action that describes how movies are made, for both the silent and sound eras. I’m also glad to learn how the studio system today got its start, and the how its rampant sexism has very old roots. But these events and themes, significant though they are, fail here to make a novel.

The narrative, though talky enough, rests on simplistic characterizations that bounce between two poles instead of bumping up against edges. In almost any scene, the reader may ask, will Mary be the girl who never had a proper childhood, and who grasps at her popularity to prop her up? Or will the generous, sensitive adult shine through for her friend Frances, with whom she shares an artistic outlook and ardent feminist sensibilities? As facts and viewpoints repeat themselves, the conflict plays out from A to B and back.

The story also seems too simple. Love happens at first sight, and so does hatred. Conflict lasts a few paragraphs, and just when you think, Now, we’re getting somewhere, the rift resolves somehow. Benjamin offers the “no,” but not the “furthermore,” maybe because the story must move on to the next script, the next year. Round about page 260, the threat that Fairbanks poses to the women’s friendship emerges, and for a while, the trouble percolates and deepens. But for some reason, Frances, who’s capable of holding her own with just about anybody, can never manage with Mary. Benjamin, who says that she has made up all the dialogue, seems unable to let her stars go.

Some of these problems may have to do with biographical fiction and its constraints, but there are other, more successful approaches to Hollywood, as with The Chaperone, about Louise Brooks, a lesser silent film star. The Girls in the Picture aspires to a more panoramic view, which is fine; in a different framework, that might work. But despite a large cast, this novel stays a two shot, Pickford and Marion, which poses limits, and their long internal monologues feel predictable and repetitive, especially Pickford’s. As for color, the cameos the jacket promises are similarly flat, except for that of the entirely self-absorbed lech, Louis B. Mayer.

The Girls in the Picture has whetted my interest in reading about early Hollywood history, so I’ll say that. If that’s what you’re looking for, maybe this book is for you; but I can’t recommend it as a novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.