Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book review, with notes: Kate Alcott's A Touch of Stardust

Alcott should entrance large audiences with her stellar historical novel, which follows fictional Indiana native Julie Crawford after she moves to Los Angeles in 1938 to become a screenwriter. Readers expecting a rehash of a familiar plotline, however—that of a young hopeful becoming disillusioned by the emptiness beneath Hollywood’s glitzy veneer—will find something more nuanced and substantive.

Working as an assistant to exuberant blonde actress Carole Lombard, who hails from her hometown, Julie gets pulled into the activity surrounding the filming of Gone with the Wind, costarring Clark Gable, the still-married man Carole loves (and vice versa). On and off the set, considerable drama unfolds; all the actors and crew are subjected to the single-minded vision of its controlling producer, David Selznick.

Both Carole and diminutive brunette Vivien Leigh light up the page in their scenes, and Julie’s story line holds its own alongside theirs. As she sheds her midwestern naïveté and works hard on a screenplay in her free time, her romance with a Jewish assistant producer draws in themes of prejudice and hypocrisy.

The briskly paced narrative captivates as it lets readers view the creation of silver-screen magic, and it’s also a terrific tribute to the industry pioneers, like screenwriter Frances Marion, who helped others jump-start their dreams.

~

A Touch of Stardust will be published by Doubleday next month ($25, hardcover, 304pp).  I wrote this starred review for Booklist's November 15th issue.  Some additional notes:

- "Kate Alcott" is a pseudonym for veteran novelist and journalist Patricia O'Brien, and this is the only novel of hers written under this name that I've read (the first, a breakout hit, was The Dressmaker).

- However, I thoroughly enjoyed her earlier novel written as O'Brien, Harriet & Isabella, about the relationship between 19th-century sisters Harriet Beecher Stowe and Isabella Beecher Hooker as they revisit the adultery trial of their brother, charismatic preacher Henry Ward Beecher.  Apparently this book didn't perform well sales-wise, which eventually led to her adoption of a pseudonym, but I suspect that had less to do with the quality of the story than the fact that the Beecher family are no longer household names.  I love this period in American history, though, and highly recommend this underrated novel.  I interviewed O'Brien about Harriet & Isabella here back in 2008.

- In addition to everything I mentioned in the review, Alcott also smoothly intertwines a secondary thread involving the African-American actors (Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen) in GWTW, particularly their conflict between the breakout opportunity the film was for them and the demeaning roles they played.  Although they were respected as professionals by their fellow actors, this wasn't the case everywhere.  In the novel, as in history, Clark Gable was outraged and outspoken on their behalf when they experienced instances of segregation on set and at the time of the film's premiere.

- The cover design has changed since the ARC; the final one, above, is an improvement in my opinion.  Very classy.

A Touch of Stardust is one of 10 titles on the February 2015 LibraryReads list.  These are the top 10 reads for a given month selected by public library staff members across the U.S. (as an academic librarian, unfortunately I can't participate in this initiative, but I enjoy seeing what this group comes up with).  I've read three of the ten for February and will be posting reviews of the remaining two (The Siege Winter and The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy) shortly.

14 comments:

  1. Sounds wonderful! I wonder if I will be able to get it in ebook? By the time it reaches my local library in Melbourne Australia I will have other things on my plate.

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    1. A good question - I can't tell yet (or maybe I'm looking in the wrong places) if it will be published separately in Australia. What sites do you normally buy ebooks from?

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    2. I only use iBooks. I hate putting my card details out there, so I buy iTunes cards. But what we can get in ebook here isn't always the same as what is avIlble in the US. It's this regional thing. I took a look to see if it at least was available for pre-order, but it wasn't. Guess I will have to be patient and wait for the paperback, if we ever get it here.

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    3. Right, I understand the sales territory thing. Hope it becomes available on iBooks. I only read ebooks on my Kindle so am not very familiar with the site. It's also available on NetGalley, if you do reviews.

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  2. She is an author that I keep starting books by, enjoy them... Never finish them! I really need to get through one.

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    1. I've seen some other readers having difficulty with her work, but for me it was a very smooth and fast read!

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  3. It would be fascinating to be around while Gone With the Wind was being shot, wouldn’t it? That alone makes this one interesting, but your shining endorsement of the author’s writing and characterizations is the clincher.

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    1. That was one aspect of the novel I enjoyed the most... all of the behind-the-scenes tidbits, especially those involving the two leads, who had incredible chemistry on screen but were involved with others in real life.

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  4. I totally missed Harriet and Isabella, so thank you for the mention. I also love the period, and The Glory Cloak, written as Patricia O'Toole, which centers around Louisa May Alcott's experience as a Civil War nurse. Thank you for the interview link, too!

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    1. I haven't read The Glory Cloak but always meant to. Louisa May Alcott was a favorite author of mine growing up.

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  5. I am so happy to hear that about Clark Gable. It really changes my image of him.

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    1. It wasn't something I had realized either before reading Touch of Stardust. Good for him.

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  6. This is the second review I've seen today and the other one didn't love it. I appreciate the differing viewpoints!

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    1. I like seeing differing viewpoints too - it helps me make up my mind about whether to read a book.

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