“It is 1914, and twenty-five-year-old Frances Marion has left her (second) husband and her Northern California home for the lure of Los Angeles, where she is determined to live independently as an artist. But the word on everyone’s lips these days is “flickers”—the silent moving pictures enthralling theatergoers. Turn any corner in this burgeoning town and you’ll find made-up actors running around, as a movie camera captures it all.
In this fledgling industry, Frances finds her true calling: writing stories for this wondrous new medium. She also makes the acquaintance of actress Mary Pickford, whose signature golden curls and lively spirit have earned her the title ‘America’s Sweetheart.’ The two ambitious young women hit it off instantly, their kinship fomented by their mutual fever to create, to move audiences to a frenzy, to start a revolution.
But their ambitions are challenged by both the men around them and the limitations imposed on their gender—and their astronomical success could come at a price. As Mary, the world’s highest paid and most beloved actress, struggles to live her life under the spotlight, she also wonders if it is possible to find love, even with the dashing actor Douglas Fairbanks. Frances, too, longs to share her life with someone. As in any good Hollywood story, dramas will play out, personalities will clash, and even the deepest friendships might be shattered.
With cameos from such notables as Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, Rudolph Valentino, and Lillian Gish, The Girls in the Picture is, at its heart, a story of friendship and forgiveness. Melanie Benjamin perfectly captures the dawn of a glittering new era—its myths and icons, its possibilities and potential, and its seduction and heartbreak.”
My Thoughts: Melanie Benjamin has a knack for selecting historical subjects who are fascinating. Always pioneering in some fashion, their exploits should make for great reading. Having read three of her novels now, I have determined that something happens to her subjects between research and pen. They lose their dynamism. Someone who should be fascinating becomes tedious in a way that borders on cartoonish. This results in stories that are not only disappointing, they are difficult to finish.
In her latest novel, Ms. Benjamin tackles the movie industry and the very first industry stars. Anyone with any interest in the history of movies will know that Mary Pickford was THE queen of Hollywood during the silent film era. Her unprecedented stardom and power within the industry remains the stuff of legends. In addition to Mary, The Girls in the Picture shines the spotlight on another female Hollywood pioneer, screenwriter Frances Marion. Two women of power when women in general did not have much of anything to call their own and a fledgling industry the likes of which no one has ever seen should be enough to make for a most compelling drama. Unfortunately, it is not.
My problem with the novel is the portrayal of Mary. To gain that much authority over her films and her career, she had to have been a fiercely independent and strong woman. After all, she was rising in popularity during a time when most of the country felt women were better off at home taking care of their husbands rather than having any sort of career. Plus, even now women have to battle against the male sense of superiority, that they know better than any woman. Ms. Benjamin even mentions the infamous casting couch and how any woman in Hollywood could only advance their career by paying a visit to a couch or two. Yet the Mary we see in the book is not strong nor is she independent. She is so very weak and heavily dependent on first her mother, then Frances, and finally her second husband. She may be canny about her movies, but Ms. Benjamin describes it more like an anomaly than a character trait. The Mary in the novel is childish, flippant, whiny, and, frankly, really annoying. She is not a pleasant character to follow, and she garners very little sympathy for her decline in popularity.
Frances is a more interesting character and one of the better parts of the novel. She embraces her independence and unique position as one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood. She lives her life how she wants to live it and cares not one whit what others think of her. Her rise in fame and power are fun to watch, especially as she does earn your sympathy not only with her scorn of men’s dominance but also with her efforts to learn more about the world at large rather than just remain within the unique microcosm that is Hollywood. The portions of the novel in which Frances tells her story are the best parts.
The unfortunate part of The Girls in the Picture is that it is a character-driven story. It is the story of Mary and Frances and how they conquered Hollywood in their respective areas. There are some fascinating glimpses into early film-making and the rapidity with which they were able to churn out silent films, but those scenes sadly grow fewer in number as the ladies’ fame rises. Instead, we are left to watch Mary, who was always weak, turn into an adult child as she grows older. Not even Frances’ continued charm is enough to offset the annoyance you feel at Mary’s petulant ways. In the end, The Girls in the Picture sounds better in theory than in execution, which is the most disappointing thing of all.
“Five women. One question. What is a woman for?
In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.
Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling herbalist, or ‘mender,’ who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.”
My Thoughts: For all of Stephen King’s monsters that he has created over the years, there is nothing as frightening as an oppressive, futuristic society that has a decent likelihood of coming true. Margaret Atwood understood this when writing her brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale. Leni Zumas is just one more author to capitalize on this fact in her novel, Red Clocks. Whereas Ms. Atwood was writing a novel that could potentially come true, Ms. Zumas’ novel is one that all but grabs its plot from current headlines as the conservative right continues to demean women and seek to destroy our right to take ownership of what happens to our body and when. The fact that there is yet another strong push to upend the Roe v. Wade decision and its pertinence to Ms. Zumas’ story makes this the most terrifying story of all.
What may be even worse is the fact that stories like Ms. Zumas’ only serve to remind readers that general sentiment towards women by a small but very powerful minority have not changed over the centuries. Women with strong personalities, like Eivør, or who exhibit expertise in an area, like Gin, have always been called witches and continue to be vilified for not expressing “more feminine” traits. Girls like Mattie continue to face societal scorn for getting pregnant out of wedlock, as if women are the sole instigators of pregnancy. Mothers like Susan will always face pressure from others for not appreciating their marriage and motherhood and experience doubts for wanting something more out of life. Yes, things are changing but at a glacial pace, which makes Red Clocks such a timely novel.
Moreover, unlike in Ms. Benjamin’s latest novel, Ms. Zumas gets us to care about her characters. They are achingly real in their desires, their frustrations, and their mistakes. None of the women want to break the law; they do not set out to be criminals. What they do have is a desire to do with their body and their lives what THEY want and not what others dictate. Seeing all of the women struggle is heartbreaking, all the more so because you cannot help but feel that their stories are eerily prescient as well.