Behave

Ethical Science, Ethical Child-Rearing — Behaviorism (Vassar College, Johns Hopkins Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic, Long Island, Whip-Poor-Will Farm, CT; 1916-1935): Many moons ago, I was an undergrad psych major. After taking all the clinical/Freudian offerings, the engrossing emotional stuff, all that was left were classical conditioning experiments with rats and mice (think Pavlov’s dogs). Stimulus-response, observable-measureable behavior — the antithesis of feelings. I hadn’t thought of those emotionless theories until Behave. Ironically, prepare for a roller-coaster ride of emotions!

Told through the complicit eyes of a science-savvy wife, Rosalie Rayner Watson, novelist and non-fiction writer Andromeda Romano-Lax delivers an absorbing, morally affecting fictional memoir taking stock of her life with the controversial founder of conditioning psychology known as Behaviorism or Behavioral Psychology: John B. Watson, a psychological giant of the 20th century. With very little known about the woman behind the larger-than-life trailblazer, the author had rich material to mine, done thoughtfully. (An ambitious novel; 401 pages.) You know you’re in for a ride when Rosalie sets the stage telling us it’s “tricky for any woman to sort out her feelings, but most of all when her husband is an expert on feelings.” Still, Rosalie comes across as a reliable narrator as all is not crystal-clear and things do not wrap up neatly.

John B. Watson
via Wikimedia Commons

Rosalie’s narrative is stunning given the popularity of John Watson’s extreme behaviorist doctrines that flourished in the 1920s to ‘50s. (B. F. Skinner came along and added complexity with his positive-negative reinforcement concepts.) Watson, on the other hand, espoused only three human emotions — fear, rage, and love; and claimed all could be stimulated, predicted, controlled. His radical views went mainstream into parental homes through magazines like Cosmopolitan and Parents and the bestselling Psychological Care of Infant and Child.

Behave opens in 1935 with an ill Rosalie, presumably what sparked this confessional. She examines: her privileged upbringing in a loving and lovely Jewish home in Baltimore; her passion for psychology at Vassar; a conflicted marriage to an influential man with “Valentino looks” and baggage from an unhappy Southern childhood and a troubled marriage to Mary Ickes, whose name rings a bell because her brother served in FDR’s administration (Rosalie and John married right after their divorce); Watson’s pioneering contributions to psychology and advertising; serious mistakes they both made in science and as parents. From the get-go, the prose grabs as you sense this is not going to be a pretty picture.

At the groundbreaking Johns Hopkins clinic run by prominent psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, the reader looks in on Professor Watson’s egregious, persistent breaching of ethical conduct involving human research subjects: fear-conditioning experiments on hundreds of “blank slates,” baby “Albert B” the most famous. Rosalie was his graduate assistant. She said nothing.

Rosalie Rayner
via Wikimedia Commons

Equally ethically disconcerting, she lets us in on what comes later, behind-closed-doors, as Rosalie navigates motherhood to two boys, Billy and Jimmy, under the dictates of her self-important husband. The reader can surmise how these two innocent children turned out; the Epilogue fills in their real history.

Professor Watson was thrown out of Hopkins for improper morals. Not for revelations about “Little Albert,” which came later, but for his scandalous love affair with Rosalie. He was twice the age of his student, married into a well-known family, a father of two, and rumors of earlier womanizing trailed him.

Watson and Rosalie appear to have embarked with good intentions. Partly in response to a topsy-turvy world after WWI, they aspired to “make the world a better place.” Did Watson really think he was helping to create happier children? Did Rosalie really take to heart his preposterous declarations that babies shouldn’t cry or be coddled or hugged? Granted Rosalie was a woefully inexperienced, overwhelmed, isolated mother. Did she go along with her guru husband’s “anti-attachment” approach because she didn’t know better, or didn’t have enough energy, or was she fearful of questioning the great man? By the time her mothering feelings were deep to admit the unnatural state of loving her two boys, it was too little, too late.

Much of their marriage took place during the break-the-mold Jazz Age, when Rosalie says it was “so easy to remake oneself these days.” Excuses? Maybe for her, but not for us. Except, I think, the author wants us to judge Rosalie against the context of history. Not to condone actions and inactions, but to provide perspective to our range of feelings towards Rosalie: disappointment, frustration, anger, outrage, sadness. She had so much, lost so much. As for the esteemed psychologist, you know you’re in good authorial hands because he engenders strong negative emotions!

Rosalie’s telling opens at Vassar College with her psych lab partner and best friend, Mary Cover. Enthused about science, Mary gave her a magnifying glass for her charm bracelet. We meet them in a course taught by the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in psychology, Margaret Floy Washburn. In short, Rosalie’s beginnings were charmed and seemed destined.

Mary Cover is key because in 1919 she and Rosalie, at Mary’s encouragement, traveled to Manhattan’s New School to hear Professor Watson’s lecture on behaviorism. By now, he’d achieved acclaim for his “1913 Behavioral Manifesto” presented at Columbia. In later years, Mary resurfaces, a haunting reminder of what Rosalie failed to do: juggle a career and motherhood. (In 1970, Mary was named “mother of behavioral psychology.”)

At first, working alongside the famed psychologist, Rosalie says she was her happiest:

“As a woman, I’d never imagined such heights of happiness: of being so wanted and so needed, my mind equally filled with our scientific tasks.”

Soon things begin to unravel. It starts with the dewy-eyed grad student hinting at discomfort with Watson’s experimentations with “Little Albert.” During those fear studies, Rosalie resists than falls for Watson’s magnetism. Then, there’s awkward, foreboding scenes of Watson’s wife oddly befriending Rosalie’s mother. Tension grows when Rosalie’s parents greatly disapprove of her marriage. (The love scandal made it into Baltimore and national newspapers.) When Watson moves Rosalie away from science, academia, and her family to the secluded wilds of Long Island, Rosalie is transformed into a lonely, housebound mother. Here, we empathize with her. She’s so out-of-sorts about her parenting skills and so fatigued she can’t even rouse herself to feel jealous about the comings-and-goings of John, now climbing-the-ranks in advertising.

John Watson was a man in a big hurry. In just three years post-Hopkins, he made a name for himself in the “psychology of appeal” at the prestigious J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Contrarily, he was psyching out the desires of the public without asking the same questions about his wife. Did he not care or see how lost she was, slumbering around in threadbare cotton dresses in a sweltering, drab rental bungalow without a phone? Frugal with Rosalie yet he was cavorting, drinking, and dressing in Mad Men style, including finding the funds to join a sailing club.

What happened to that charmed Vassar girl? Why did she give up her identity? Her dreams? Her family? Her moral compass? If she couldn’t stand up for herself, couldn’t she have at least stood up for her children? She admits she was an enabler: “How could two smart people be so stupid?”

Rosalie’s spiral is depressing. Depression is the best diagnosis I can come up with to reconcile how she came to let herself and her children down so badly.

Rosalie tells us there’s “no such thing as a clean break.” This much seems certain.

Lorraine

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Glory Over Everything 7

This post is dedicated to the readers and book clubbers who spread the word about The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom’s heart-wrenching historical fiction debut depicting the inhuman abuses of slavery and the complexity of racial relationships on a southern Virginia plantation in antebellum South, defying the odds by becoming a bestseller 2 ½ years after its 2010 publication (my review). For all who clamored for a sequel, Glory Over Everything arrives next week! Again, it tears at your heart continuing to pound big emotional themes about a horrific period in American history. From the opening quote by Harriet Tubman (from which the beautiful title is drawn) — the famed slave synonymous with the Underground Railroad – the new novel is glorious for its artful rendering of fictional characters who rose up to overcome.

Crimes against humanity and the price of freedom (Philadelphia, North Carolina, 1830; 1810 -1829 backstories): Speaking about the portrayal of slavery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to open in September on the National Mall, director Lonnie G. Bunch III could have been epitomizing Glory Over Everything:

“We wanted to make sure you felt the pain of slavery, but also pondered what it meant when one group of people did this to another group … Slavery was not the only way to define people. They had a strength that I wish I had.”

The novel’s power doesn’t come from what the brutal characters do to the noble ones — cruel abuses of slavery on so many dimensions. Rather, its strength lies in the brave and decent characters whose courage and dignity warms our hearts and gives us hope. Surely hope is badly needed this political season as we see how deeply racially divided our country still is. Could the timing of the sequel be more relevant?

Second acts can disappoint. Not here! In fact, like editor Trish Todd wrote in her note to readers, I too think the sequel “surpasses” its predecessor.

One reason: Grissom excels at creating convincing characters through authentic dialogue. The four main ones are: Jamie, Pan, Caroline, and Sukey. They come to us in their four voices, with chapters structured and titled by their names and dates.

Chapter 1 opens in Jamie’s voice in 1830, then moves back and forth among voices and time to unfold character backstories. This approach gets us inside their heads, into their shame, losses, angst, and attachments to the past. (Jamie’s and Sukey’s linked to the first novel.) Each voice speaks to us in dialogue that hits the right tone, befits the character. Measured, not overly flowery, adeptly punctuated with historical detail.

This means sophisticated, thirty-three-year-old Jamie, who “learned to hide uncertainty under the cover of sophistication,” speaks to us in a dignified manner, prose fitting a bona fide member of Philadelphia’s high-society. Which he is not. The same holds true for the prose of lovely Caroline, nine years younger, delicate and accepting of her true aristocratic self and destiny: a loveless, arranged marriage expected of the upper-class.

Caroline is lily white, Jamie’s bi-racial, which sets up a key tension in the novel. The other centers on a black boy named Pan who, like Sukey, speaks in a dialect of broken vernacular English tenses. Remarkably, their words flow easily. Pan’s plight, along with Caroline’s and Jamie’s, drive the suspense.

Contrasted with the formal and gentle prose and the broken English is the harsh “n” word which invades the plot. It cannot be avoided, regrettably, if the fiction is to sear real. Which it does.

For those who read The Kitchen House a while ago (or prefer to start with this novel), be assured Grissom provides sufficient backstory, repeated, to bring you up to speed. Still, a little refresher: Jamie discovered his bi-racial roots toward the end of book one, committed a crime related to it, and then ran away North for freedom. Since Jamie looks white, he handily assumed a new identity but he spends the rest of the novel dreading his falsehood.

Harriet Tubman
By H. Seymour Squyer,
at National Portrait Gallery
via Wikimedia Commons

So when we now meet him, he’s Jamie Burton. We’re told he was thirteen when he fled to Philly, where he met an escaped slave, Henry, who saved his life. It’s too dangerous for the two to be seen together, so in twenty years they’ve seen each other only twice. First, fifteen years later, when Henry sought Jamie out to watch over his seven-year-old son, Pan. He did, indebted to Henry. Over the next five years, Jamie grows to delight in Pan’s sweet innocence, curiosity, and compassionate heart. Pan is too good and too understanding for his tender years and bleak upbringing (nursed his Mama who died; tells Jamie “I never have shoes before;” and is amazed “we gon’ eat again?”).

The year 1830 represents the twenty year mark, when Henry arrives through the back door of the respected home of Mr. and Mrs. Burton where Jamie resides. He beseeches Jamie to return South because Pan is gone, fearing he was sold into slavery.

Short, brisk chapters quickly bring us to the second plotline: the secreted affair between married Caroline and Jamie, complicated further by Jamie’s not confiding his ancestry with her.

The southern road ahead for Jamie is palpably dangerous. For one thing, despite his whiteness, Jamie stands out. Born with the use of only one eye, he wears an eye patch.

Not all is gloom and doom. There are tales of kindness and love, and a wonderful thread of artistic and natural aesthetics. A few examples: Jamie’s apprenticeship as a master silversmith and skilled painter of miniature birds using the pinfeathers of a woodcock instead of a larger sable brush; the familial affection of the Burtons for Jamie (Mr. Burton owns the silver shop); the steadfast devotion and friendship of Robert, Jamie’s manservant; and the forbidden passion of Caroline and Jamie.

There’s also the charm of Jamie’s ornithological visits to Philadelphia’s former Peale Museum and Bartram’s botanical gardens; a talkative cockatoo with brilliant colors; the lush greenery of Virginia; the eerily scenic Great Dismal Swamp; a tough, independent-minded, sixteen-year-old young lady, Addy; an abolitionist Quaker family; and a life-saving goat. These elements lighten the heavy heartedness of what befalls the characters once Jamie returns to the South.

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
[U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons]

Chief among them is poor Sukey, now a slave. Last we knew her, she was a girl living in the big house with Miss Lavenia (the Irish immigrant of The Kitchen House), both of whom cared for the matriarch, Martha Pyke. Sukey’s nursing skills and ability to read and write serve her well at first in her transformed life as a slave. Her fate changes, worsens dramatically.

That drama, absorbing much of the ending, will send chills up your spine. You may also shed tears, moved by incredible bravery.

Again, Grissom’s novel raises many issues, many questions. Again, perfect for book clubs. The first one that came to my mind: Can we ever escape our past?

Lorraine

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Be Frank With Me

“One-in-a-million”: Raising an exceptional child (Los Angeles, 2009-10): For every parent raising a child endowed with unusual abilities – and the teachers, classmates, friends, family members, and others who nurture and cross paths with that child – Be Frank with Me is a gift.

Wrapped in a catchy turquoise, top hat/monocle cover (a tip-off), Julia Claiborne Johnson’s sparkling debut has a big heart filled with wit, charm, and poignancy as it tips its hat to a “one-in-a-million” nine-year-old boy named Frank, who lives in an affluent neighborhood outside Hollywood and is a “devotee of film.”

Johnson also lives in LA, with a husband who writes comedy and has spent time on Hollywood sets (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fq-EmeG_0A). Aren’t we lucky all that rubbed off on her? But make no mistake, her novel also offers a potent message about the challenges of parenting an exceptionally gifted child who displays many traits that from a layman’s viewpoint fall within the high-functioning spectrum of autism, or Asperger’s syndrome. She doesn’t label Frank, but if you know a kid like him, you’ll recognize how exhausting, exasperating, amazing – and endearing – someone like Frank can be.

Frank’s genius (his IQ is higher than 99.7% of the population) lies in his extraordinary language proficiency, photographic-memory, and passion for details. His Asperger-like attributes include: he can’t stand being touched (except by his mother) or have his things touched; tantrums and rocking motions when he gets anxious; doesn’t make eye contact; speaks in a flat, monotone voice; takes things literally; lacks social skills with kids his own age; sleepwalks; and is sensitive to textures.

The first thing to keep in mind about Frank is that he gravitates toward happiness (“a facial expression that almost came naturally to him”), so the overall feel of the novel is light-hearted. An example of how this plays out against stereotyping is that Frank isn’t pained by textures like fabric. Listen to how he good-naturedly and cleverly describes the fabric of a girl’s clothing, something he attends to meticulously:

“rayon, a wood-based fiber invented in 1855 but not popularized until the 1920s because until then it was highly combustible. Her rayon kilt feels like cashmere but is more suitable for playground wear as it is machine washable.”

The plot pushes Frank’s development to extreme by placing him in a secluded “glass mansion” high atop the hills of Bel Air overlooking Hollywood, with his reclusive one-book literary phenomenon of a single mother, Mimi Banning. Translation: he’s watched plenty of movies on TV so he’s a fount of knowledge about classical Hollywood moviemaking, legendary stars and their wardrobe accoutrements. He spouts information “as if he were reading off a teleprompter.” Since his mother has had the money and eccentricities to indulge him, his everyday attire – humorous, outlandish, gentlemanly, old-fashioned — doesn’t fit in. No wonder he gets stared at a lot.

Enter his literary sensation mother whom we meet in mid-life, a victim of a Ponzi scheme, forced to write a second novel. Mimi has also lost her immediate family; hides from the outside world and still-besieging fans behind a privacy wall Frank’s didn’t-quite-graduate Juilliard piano teacher, Zander, helped to build. Zander is terrific with Frank, and he’s a jack-of-all-trades but he’s unreliable, popping in and out of their lives. So Mimi reaches out to the only person she fully trusts, her Manhattan publisher, Isaac Vargas. A second novel, thirty years later, would be an instant bestseller, so of course Vargas is thrilled. He also knows “prickly” Mimi will need an assistant. Mimi outlines her requirements: “no Ivy Leaguers” and someone “good with kids.” Turns out the only qualification that matters is to take care of, entertain, and protect accident prone, into-everything Frank.

Twenty-four-year old Alice from Nebraska, who works for Mr. Vargas, beautifully fits the bill. She’s not a complainer (“Pollyanna”), an understatement! In fact, while Frank is obviously the star of this show, unshakable Alice, who is remarkably tenaciousness and thick-skinned at absorbing Mimi’s constant verbal abuse, Frank’s shenanigans, and dealing with capricious Zander, quietly also steals the show. This is to say that Mimi’s difficulties with motherhood are subtler, whereas Alice’s trials-and-tribulations and calmness cannot be missed!

By now you know Frank is a dapper dresser. His attire includes a smoking jacket, tailcoat, “three-piece glen-plaid suit,” and a “severe charcoal pinstripe number, complete with pocket square;” his accessories (besides the aforementioned top hat and monocle) include an aviator’s cap, bow tie, watch chain, pince-nez, cuff links. He evokes celebrities like Clarence Darrow, Sherlock Holmes, Tony Curtis, E.F. Hutton, Dr. Livingston, detective Nick Charles. One of my favorite lines comes early on when Alice is getting acquainted with Frank, gently admonishing him: “It’s not enough to dress like a gentleman … You need to act like one, too.”

What comes out of Frank’s mouth will delight: singular vocabulary like verisimilitude and homonym; sentences like “Allons-y is what the French Foreign Legion say when what they really mean is ‘Let’s blow this Popsicle stand, my friends!’”; and lengthier discourse like this one expressed while riding with Alice down Sunset Boulevard:

“the boulevard we just left behind, not the movie, originated as an eighteenth-century cattle path that followed the rim of the Los Angeles Basin and ran from the original Spanish settlement in downtown Los Angeles all the way to the ocean.”

Still, nothing delights more than the “joy and intensity and sweet, pure love” he feels for his Mama. That’s when he sees her, which given the stakes, are rare occurrences these days. When they do come together, it’s often precipitated by disastrous incidents Frank innocently instigates.

Frank may remind you of an amusing, charming younger version of Don Tillman in the bestselling The Rosie Project. Genetics professor, Don, also had undiagnosed Asperger-like challenges. You’ll smile, laugh, marvel, and adore Frank like we felt about Don, but Frank tugs at your heartstrings tighter because this “Little Prince” is just a child.

Like The Rosie Project sequel, The Rosie Effect, I’d love to see how life turns out for Frank. Mimi, and all parents whose children are different (and not), worry about their future. Frank is loved and cherished, his specialness appreciated, so we’re optimistic that his future will shine brightly like The Little Prince’s stars.

Lorraine

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Girl Through Glass 2

A Ballet Princess and Balletomania (NYC 1978–1981; Ohio present): Sari Wilson’s debut historical novel is as masterful as her ballet protagonist’s stirring story of “self-mastery.”

This is the fourth novel I’ve reviewed involving the ballet arts (see Astonish Me, I Always Loved You, and The Painted Girls). So, yes, I’m drawn to reading about people passionate about the ballet.

Like author Joanna Rakoff’s glowing testimonial, “I loved, loved, loved this novel.” It’s the most psychological, provocative, affecting, and darkest among the group. Since I tend toward the lighter-hearted, here’s why the hype rings true:

Suspenseful Structure: by composing the novel in two narrative points-of-view – third-person Mira Able and first-person Kate Randell — the reader is taunted and haunted by similarities and revelations between them:11-14 year old ballet student Mira, a Brooklyn to Manhattan (due to divorce and re-marriage) “bunhead” in the late 1970s and early ‘80s versus forty-something dance historian professor Kate, an adjunct teacher at an Ohio college in the present day. We race through briskly designed chapters to discover how they’re connected. For as candid as Mira and Kate seem, both are keeping secrets. I figured out one of them: the relationship between the two characters, but it took me awhile to be absolutely sure. Mira and Kate each harbor other secrets. Mira’s drives the plot. Eureka when its divulged. Which is why, dear reader, much of the storyline cannot be told here. No spoilers!

George Balanchine
Tanaquil LeClerq personal archive [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

Mira’s character study takes place when NYC was in a downturn, but its fervor for the ballet was soaring. “Manhattan is in love with the ballet,” affirms our third-person narrator. For here at Lincoln Center was the home of one of the world’s top ballet companies — George Balanchine’s NYCB — and one of the most selective ballet schools in the country (only 1 in 100 accepted), which he also founded, the School of American Ballet, SAB. (NYC’s American Ballet Theatre, ABT, is its greatest competitor. ABT is more classical as Balanchine is famous for creating his own repertoires inspired by the classical, or neo-classical. SAB is considered more intense, and as depicted, has the edge in prestige.) Balanchine is also known for a distinct style of movements and aesthetics. “Mr. B” expects simplicity and weightlessness from his waif-like yet energetically strong ballet students and stunning ballerinas – a “cult of beauty and perfection.”

For Mira, the ballet studio is the only place she feels she belongs, where she becomes a “carefree girl” who is “floating free.” Free from her painfully disengaged hippieish mother, so unlike the doting, deeply-invested “ballet mothers.” She’s also escaping a “topsy-turvy” Brooklyn brownstone, and a well-meaning but pre–occupied father with a drinking problem who has run away from her mother too. Redheaded, freckled, thin, serious, sad, and lonely Mira does not fit in, doesn’t know who to trust, but wants to be adored.

Third-person narration offers us perspective and insight into Mira’s ballet dreams, pressures, discipline, and sacrifices – into the price of beauty, perfectionism, and ballet stardom. Kate’s first-person narration allows us to sense her intimately. She’s unsettled and unsettling, professionally and personally. She even confesses she’s “drawn to the illicit, the secretive.”

Insider’s Look at a Closely-Held, Coveted World: Sari Wilson writes with authority about an artistic world and places she knows well. A former ballet student at New York City’s Neubert Ballet Theatre, Harkness Ballet, and Eliot Feld’s New Ballet School, she also studied and performed modern dance at Oberlin College in Ohio. Even with these germane experiences, her novel feels impressively authentic, as she portrays the “vanishing child-self” who is:

“being molded into the stick-thin hipless Balanchine ballerinas, known far and wide as Balanchine’s ‘pinheads.’ If there is a fairy tale at work here,” Wilson says, it is not really Cinderella, but more like Hansel and Gretel.”

Poignant Balletomane: Ballet is an art form that inspires mania. Forty-six-year-old, grey-haired, polio-stricken (a cruel fate for someone who idolizes beauty) Maurice Dupont notices Mira’s special ballet beauty. He mentors her, calls her Mirabelle, then Bella. His beautifully-crafted backstory illuminates his balletomania. Through his character, we learn about classical 19th century ballet legends, as their photographs adorn his Manhattan apartment walls, especially Pavlova’s, whose famous burnt-through the toe box pointe shoes he owns and cherishes.

History of Ballet Greats: creating a dance historian character provides a splendid vehicle for also informing us about celebrated classical and modern ballet dancers, choreographers, teachers, and operas. So many greats were, of course, Russians; also Italian and French. Their names fill dance history books — Petipa, Nijinsky, Nureyev, Markova, Legnani, Karsavina, Ulanova, Taglioni, Spessivtseva, Danilova, Toumanova, Tumkovsky. I had a field day looking them up!

Ballet Prose: Ballet words dance gently through the pages: glissade, pas de boureé, changement, soutenu, jeté, ronde de jambé, port de bras, développé. A nice place to search for these terms tied to observing their movements is ABT’s ballet dictionary.

In under 300 pages, Girl Through Glass has it all. Complicated, ambivalent relationships. Characters struggling to define themselves, happiness, virtuosity. A suggestive title that reflects a girl who “never felt like a child;” a woman who feels “hollow;” a city witnessing a skyscraper boom of glass, fantastical and high-reaching like the ballet dancers. Classical and Modern converging. Life that asks “more and more,” while ballet seeks “lighter and lighter.” Artistry that personifies beauty, yet up-close we see the “suffering.”

By Lambtron (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

I choose to remember a beautiful young girl flying sky-high over the glass. You will remember her too.

Lorraine

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Platinum Doll 2

When the Camera Adores You — Jean Harlow’s Legacy (1928 – 1933, Hollywood): If you’re into New Year’s resolutions, here’s mine: keep searching for enchanting historical novels that let us escape the coarseness of today’s discourse. That’s why the spirited voices of creative souls reside in this blog, some taking us back to the glamorous days of Old Hollywood (see American BlondeA Touch of StardustLaura Lamont’s Life in Pictures).

What distinguishes Platinum Doll from these others is Anne Girard brings us back to an even earlier Hollywood era: when silent films were transitioning to the “talkies.” Also, she pays tribute to just a slice of a movie star’s life – Jean Harlow’s – when she was coming-of-age, impressionable, unsure of her ambitions, then struggling to get noticed and once she did had to “fight to be taken seriously.” For Harlow was a strikingly beautiful, sexy ingénue with ash-blonde hair who was also a comedic talent. While her “goddess” legend lives on, most of us probably don’t know the influence she had on starlets who came after her.

Lovely Jean Harlow was born Harlean Carpenter. Her overly protective, achingly controlling mother bore the real name Jean Harlow. She too was a blonde beauty and dreamed of stardom, but she failed to make it in Hollywood, starting too late at the ripe old age of 30! Instead, “Mommie” lives out her fairy-tale vicariously through “Baby,” micro-managing her career and personal life. Mother-daughter bond was complicated, depicted sensitively. You’ll find yourself wishing Harlean was more assertive, but you’ll also understand the tenderheartedness of Harlean’s affections.

Devoted, vulnerable, and actually shy in public speaking, Harlean was a lover of books (she penned a novel) and animals. We first meet her at 17, six months after she eloped with Chuck McGrew, age 20, when they’ve left Kansas City for Beverly Hills. Her self-serving mother and gangster-like, swindling stepfather Marino Bello soon followed, upsetting the young marriage. A charming, compassionate Aunt Jetty and best friend, aspiring actress Rosalie Roy temper their scheming and self-indulgence.

The young couple are living on Chuck’s $250,000 trust fund inherited from his parents who died in an accident, a tragedy that exerts a powerful role on their steamy, rocky marriage. Chuck brought his wife to Los Angeles because he adored her, knew she’d once been happy there, but he was too possessive, grief-stricken, and idle to accept that his gorgeous wife might want more out of life than being a housewife or mother. Doomed from the start because of Harlean’s domineering mother, Chuck’s jealous, drunken rages fueled her artistic desires and independence. It is for this reason that better known husbands and famous relationships with Clark Gable and William Powell do not play center-stage. It’s the significance of Chuck the author wants to tell us about.

The novel is a fascinating trip down memory lane. Its pages are filled with the names of stars like Clara Bow, Pola Negri, Gary Cooper, Laurel and Hardy, James Cagney, Jeannette MacDonald, Maurice Chevalier, Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and even Rin Tin Tin, as well as the moguls from that bygone motion picture age.

And you can’t help but feel nostalgic for a time when people actually used the words “swell” and “keen,” dignified dialogue that fits the elegant white gloves, silk gowns, and furs that wrapped Harlean’s “sleek, willowy body.” We can imagine her “sheathed in a new ivory-colored, knee-length crepe de chine dress with a band of lace at her hips.”

Sure this was the time of prohibitions – alcohol, most notably, and extremely binding contracts with big studios who virtually made the stars in those days (Howard Hughes notoriously underpaid and restricted Harlean). But these were also dazzling times, and Jean Harlow learned how to “Dazzle ‘em!” (Hughe’s marching orders for the heavily promoted war picture that propelled her stardom, Hells Angel’s, the first of many films she co-starred with Clark Gable).

My favorite historical novels come with an Author’s Note, cluing the reader in on how true to history the fiction stayed, and what inspired their work. Girard offers that, and more. No spoilers here in case, like me, you suspect but aren’t sure about the trajectory of the actress’ later years.

Girard’s respect for the film star and the film arts results in feel-good prose. For more of her deft fictionalizing of artists, read her terrific historical debut, Madame Picasso.

Here’s to more enchanted reading in 2016! Lorraine

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