Across the Page: April 2009

 
 

My Life With Stella Kane by Linda Morganstein (Regal Crest)

Linda Morganstein’s new novel My Life With Stella Kane is a funny, sharp look at what it was like to be gay in 1950’s Hollywood. 

The book starts with a confessional prologue featuring Nina Weiss. “I’M A LESBIAN,” she declares. “There, I’ve said it.” At seventy-six years old, Nina is finally ready to tell her story about the life she lived with the famous actress Stella Kane:

“This is a story of self-invention and drama. It’s a story about the value and limitations of truth. Most of all, it’s the story of the bond I shared with a woman and a legend. She was a star. She was the one I knew best and the one who will always remain a mystery to me.”

The point of view shifts from the first to the third-person in the opening chapter, which is initially a jarring transition. However, the story picks up quickly as we meet the young Nina leaving her sheltered life in Scarsdale, New York, to work at her uncle’s movie studio in Hollywood.

Nina is assigned to help the illustrious and beautiful actress, Stella Kane, with her publicity. When a studio executive claims that Stella appears too “independent” for a role in an upcoming film, Nina concocts a complicated but familiar plan: she sets up Stella with Hollace Carter, a closeted actor whose reputation is in need of protection for obvious reasons.

As Nina works to construct Stella’s image as one half of Hollywood’s “it” couple, she grows more aware of her feelings for her client and friend. Though the story is juicy and at times campy, the book’s most interesting moments feature Stella and Nina struggling to communicate their attraction — and once that happens, how they deal with the potential consequences.

My Life With Stella Kane is an entertaining look into Hollywood during the fifties and the pressure actors experienced to stay in the closet. In many ways, the rules here don’t seem all that different from today’s rules — one of the book’s subtle but effective ideas. “Some day we’ll be able to be ourselves,” Hollace’s lover says at one point. Hollace, however, is a bit more pessimistic: “It will always be this way. This is one thing people won’t accept.”

Aquamarine by Carol Anshaw (Mariner Books)

Carol Anshaw’s innovative novel, Aquamarine, is a storyabout fate and circumstance. 

Back in 1968, Jesse placed second in the Olympics for the hundred-meter freestyle. She lost the gold to the beautiful and manipulative Marty Finch from Australia, a fantastic swimmer who did more than just seduce Jesse the night before the competition.

Now, over twenty years later, the novel features three possible paths that Jesse’s life could have taken after the event. Each scenario reveals a different side of Jesse, though they are all linked by her haunting past — both the loss of the gold and her love of Marty.

In the first version, Jesse is a real estate agent living in her hometown in Missouri. She is married, pregnant with her first child, and having an affair with another man. When one of her new clients, Alice, recognizes her from her swimming days, Jesse is flooded with memories of the night she spent with Marty and how it affected her performance during the competition.

In an alternative version, we see Jesse living in New York City with her lover, Kit, a soap-opera actress who made a brief appearance in the previous section. The couple leaves the safe enclave of the city to visit Missouri for Jesse’s mother’s birthday party, a true test for their relationship. 

Jesse hasn’t been home in over three years. She has never introduced her mother to one of her lovers and things are as tense as she feared and expected. When her mother asks if she could take Willie, Jesse’s retarded brother, back to New York for a while, Jesse worries that it will drive away Kit.

In the third section, Jesse is a divorced mother of two trying to save her son, Anthony, whose most recent adventures have landed in prison. Her ex-husband, Tom, comes down to Florida from his new life and family up north to “save the day.” While there, he tells Jesse that he recently ran into Marty who is now a talk show host in Australia.

When Jesse inquires whether Marty asked about her, Tom explains that it was only a quick conversation. It is another example of how the memory of Marty continues to invade Jesse this many years later. In each version of Jesse’s life, we learn more about her performance at the Olympics and her experience with Marty.

The final section reveals a Jesse that could come from any of the three featured in the book — one who is finally prepared to confront her past. Aquamarine is a thought provoking read about how one moment can determine the direction of a life. It won the Carl Sandburg Award and was a finalist for a Lambda Award. Highly recommended.

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