MOVIE STAR BY LIZZIE PEPPER by Hilary Liftin

I have had the pleasure of knowing author Hilary Liftin for a long time. We went to school together here in DC from 4th-12th grade and have stayed in touch over the years since then. I’ve always known that Hilary is a great writer, both from what she wrote in high school and from her two non-fiction books published under her own name: Dear Exile, a collection of letters she exchanged post-college with a friend who was living abroad, and Candy And Me, Hilary’s ode to candy, one of our shared passions.

As a ghostwriter of several celebrity memoirs, Hilary has also seen Hollywood up close. She knows how that world works, and what it’s like to live on the A-list. And so when it came to writing her first novel Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper, she drew on her knowledge of that world, one that fascinates so many of us.

The quick synopsis of Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper is that it’s a fictional retelling of the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes marriage. Lizzie is a young actress with some notable roles and relationships under her belt who is suddenly and intensely wooed by Rob Mars, the most famous movie star on the planet. After a whirlwind courtship, they get engaged, she gets pregnant, and they get married. But while Lizzie is surrounded by unimaginable luxury and privilege, she is unhappy in her marriage. She’s not only trapped by Rob’s celebrity and the public’s insatiable appetite for information about their family, but she’s also unwillingly drawn into Rob’s participation in a Scientology-like cult called One Cell. She eventually comes to understand just how powerful and dangerous the cult is, and how her children’s lives have been – and will continue to be – affected by One Cell.

Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper is a fun book. It’s a bit lighter than what I usually read and review here on EDIWTB, but I enjoyed it just as much as my usual (depressing) fare. Hilary has done her research (anyone with an US Weekly subscription will recognize pieces of Katie Holmes’ story reimagined for Lizzie Pepper) and has infused the book with many satisfying, juicy details about her characters’ lives. There is an element of suspense as the story heats up – how will Lizzie make her escape and will One Cell retaliate? And Hilary is a smooth, entertaining writer who crafts believable dialogue and satisfyingly leaves no stones unturned. And of course the book raises questions about why as a society we are so obsessed with celebrity culture and whether being famous is really something to aspire to.

I read in an interview with Hilary that she had never tried fiction before and didn’t know anything about how to write it. I am very impressed with her ability to craft a story, develop characters, and pace the plot so evenly with no prior experience or training.

If you’re up on celebrity divorces, aren’t afraid to read US Weekly in public (or even, gasp!, subscribe), or enjoyed Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, then you’ll probably enjoy Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper.

Nice work, Hilary. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

Literary Fiction for Summer

I have a post in the most recent issue of Readerly Magazine about some rewarding literary fiction picks for summer. If you’re looking for something substantive, you might enjoy these books from some of my favorite authors.

THE LEMON GROVE by Helen Walsh

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh is a quintessential summer novel about a British couple – fortysomething Jenn and her older husband Greg – who are spending a two-week vacation at their usual summer rental in Majorca. Greg’s 15 year-old daughter (Jenn’s stepdaughter) Emma joins them for the second half the trip, bringing her boyfriend Nathan with her. Nathan’s 17, and Jenn immediately finds herself attracted to him, despite the wild impropriety of the situation.

As the vacation progresses, Jenn loses perspective and gets more and more obsessed with Nathan. Her feelings oscillate between shame, lust, anger and rejection as she and Nathan circle each other and she has to contend with his parallel relationship with Emma. This book is claustrophobia-inducing, as Walsh confines the action almost entirely to these four characters and the few places they inhabit over the course of the trip – the rental house, the beach, a few restaurants, a hike. Walsh dissects the interactions between the four in great detail, conveying shifting allegiances, affronts and retreats in what felt like real time.

I enjoyed the atmosphere of The Lemon Grove and its summery Mediterranean setting. I could just picture the people in the restaurants, the hippie girl at the beach, the pasta they prepared for dinner. With the action spread over such a short period of time, Walsh really captured the moods of this family’s vacation. She also did a good job with the family dynamics at work among Jenn, Greg and Emma.

I was less enthralled with the story of Jenn and Nathan’s physical relationship. I don’t know how realistic it was. It’s not that I didn’t believe the mutual attraction, it’s just that it all unfolded so quickly. Their vague flirtation escalated immediately, and under the eyes of Greg and Emma, no less,  which felt fabricated. I also think that Jenn would have been put off by Nathan’s selfishness and better able to keep her obsession with him under control.

In the end, the summer setting and incisive family dynamics weren’t enough to compensate for the emptiness I felt at the end of the book. The main story – Jenn’s obsession and dalliance with Nathan, didn’t hold up for me and really lessened Jenn as a character.

 

IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT by Judy Blume

As you may have heard, Judy Blume is back this summer with a new book, her first for adults in over 15 years. In The Unlikely Event takes place in 1952 (when Blume was a teenager), in her hometown of Elizabeth, NJ. It is based on real events: three unrelated incidents of planes taking off or landing at Newark Airport and crashing in the suburban town of Elizabeth, all within a six-week period. While the characters are fictional, Blume based her book on both her memories of that scary time in her life and on extensive research done over the last 5 years.

The story is told mostly by classic Blume protagonist Miri Ammerman, a 14 year-old Jewish girl living in the suburbs. (Hello, Margaret, Sally, and Deenie!). Miri witnesses the first crash, and her last year of middle school is punctuated by the second two crashes as well as her first boyfriend, the sudden appearance of her father, and the loss of her best friend. In The Unlikely Event also has a host of other narrators: Miri’s family, her best friend’s family, people on the planes, people on the ground, and others in the community. Some reviewers have complained that there are too many characters to keep straight, but that didn’t bother me.

So, people seem to have loved this book (despite the confusing parade of narrators). I wish I had, but I didn’t. It read like an old-fashioned Judy Blume book to me, not like adult fiction. I found the characters to be pretty two-dimensional. They had flaws, some unexpected, but they were still pretty shallow. The dialogue was often predictable and cliched, and momentous things kept happening within very short time periods. One man lost his wife in the first crash and was paired off with another within a month. Miri’s father appeared in her life, causing her great angst, but the two of them never had a real conversation. An entire family broke apart within the course of a few weeks. It all felt rushed and oversimplified. I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I had read it when I read the rest of Judy Blume’s books, but I read too much else these days and this just didn’t compare.

I also thought that Blume’s treatment of the crashes was underdeveloped. Blume didn’t spare the grisly details, but I was still left wondering more about how the crashes impacted air travel, tourism and the local community.

The last chapter jumped ahead 30 years, when Miri was in her 40s and more mature. Unsurprisingly, that’s the chapter found the most satisfying. I liked learning how her life had turned out, and I thought Blume wrapped things up pretty realistically.

I am definitely in the minority. (I feel sort of traitorous even writing this review!) Most reviewers loved In The Unlikely Event, so if you’re a Judy Blume fan, give it a try. I should also note that the book does reflect the time period pretty well, and the naivete and girlishness of many of the characters may be pretty accurate for the 50s.

I listened to In The Unlikely Event on audio. The narration did not help the cause, as I found the narrator’s voice and diction pretty much spot on for a 14 year-old girl. That was fine for Miri’s sections, but it exacerbated my frustration with the (lack of) maturity of the other characters.

Sorry I am not more positive about this book – I really wanted to like it.

Disappearing Kids in Fiction

I have a blog post up today at Readerly about the theme of disappearing kids, and why it’s so common in literary fiction. Check it out!

THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate

Our final mother-daughter book club read of 2015 was the 2013 Newbery Medal-winning The One And Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. It’s the story of Ivan, a captive gorilla who has been living in a glass cage in a roadside mall for 27 years. Memories about his childhood in the wild, his deceased sister, and his strange years living with his keeper in a house are all painful for Ivan, so he mostly focuses on the present and the other animals in the roadside mall – Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. Ivan also paints (his paintings are available in the mall gift shop) and sometimes interacts with the humans who press their faces against the glass walls of his cage. A rather depressing existence.

The mall falls upon hard times, and in order to get more visitors, its owner buys a young elephant who has been captured from the wild. Ruby is wary and defensive at first, but thanks to Stella’s coddling and calming, she become more interactive. She reluctantly participates in the tricks her new owner trains her to do, but she questions him, and the whole setup, from the start. When Stella dies from a foot infection, she extracts a deathbed promise from Ivan that he will take care of Ruby and get her out of captivity, so that she doesn’t spend her life the way Stella did.

How will complacent (depressed?) Ivan find a way to get Ruby – and himself – out of the mall? And what will they find when they get out?

The One And Only Ivan is a moving – often very sad – exploration of the relationship between humans and animals, friendship, keeping hope alive, and making a change. It sparked a good discussion among our group of 11 year-olds about whether zoos are positive places for animals and how animals think and communicate. We all felt deeply for these creatures and were very sad about the way they were treated, though we also sympathized not only with the animals’ handler but also the man who ran the mall, who cared about them in his own way. It’s a very easy book to read, with short chapters and sentences that convey what Ivan is thinking, but the themes addressed are not simple or easy.

The girls in the book club liked The One And Only Ivan quite a bit, and for many of them it ranked among their two favorite books of the year.

THE SWEETHEART DEAL by Polly Dugan

[First, a note – somewhere along the way, I stopped including the Depressing-o-Meter in my reviews. I miss it. I think I am going to add it back in. For the newbies, it measures, on a scale of 1 to 10, how depressing the reviewed book is. Most books reviewed on EDIWTB fall into the 6-9 category.]

Last year, I reviewed a collection of short stories by Polly Dugan called So Much A Part Of You. I really enjoyed it, and noted that she had a novel coming out in 2015 that I was looking forward to reading. That novel is now out and it’s called The Sweetheart Deal.

Don’t be misled by the cozy domestic photo on the cover, or by the plot – firefighter husband dies in an accident and best friend moves in to help widow, who is unaware that husband once made best friend sign an agreement that he would take care of widow if anything ever happened to husband – which both suggest conventional women’s fiction with a predictable ending. That’s not really what The Sweetheart Deal is.

Dugan’s writing is spare and matter-of fact. The Sweetheart Deal is told from multiple perspectives – wife Audrey, best friend Garrett, and Audrey’s three sons, switching off each chapter. I liked her attention to detail and the very realistic way that she described how the characters felt and related to each other. I felt like I was in the room with them, watching familiar scenes unfold in ways that made perfect sense. Dugan’s depiction of grief was pretty powerful, especially from Audrey’s perspective. There is a scene that really stuck with me, where Audrey is so incapable of functioning that she can’t even pull an outfit together to leave the house. Her interactions with her sons also seemed very accurate to me.

Of course the main focus of the book is the relationship between Garrett and Audrey. That was the weaker link in the story. I didn’t doubt that the two developed feelings for each other, but I wanted to know why. In order to root for them as a couple and believe that they were right for each other outside of Garrett’s promise to his best friend, I needed to see stronger evidence of their independent connection. Garrett knew Audrey for many years before he flew to Portland to help her through her grief. What did he think of her then, and how did his feelings change, or emerge, when he got to Portland? These questions nagged at me a little while I was reading the book. I just wanted more.

Overall, though, The Sweetheart Deal is readable, engrossing and moving. It’s a small story in scope, with only a handful of characters, but it takes on big, universal issues with understanding and empathy. It wasn’t a perfect read, but it was definitely worth the time. I hope Dugan has more novels in her.

Depressing-0-Meter: 7. It’s about death and grieving, so a 7 is actually pretty good.