Book Review: Does Kate Alcott’s The Hollywood Daughter Capture Communism?

Image courtesy of Penguin Random House.

–By Marie Taylor

Another dark time in American history is made more real by the storytelling of Kate Alcott in her latest book The Hollywood Daughter, published by Doubleday in 2017. The New York Times bestselling author (whose real name is Patricia O’Brien) of The Dressmaker takes readers back in time again, but this time it’s to the glamorous and mysterious world of Hollywood during the peak of WWII.

This book is mainly set in 1940s Hollywood, where the film business is thriving despite the war going on overseas and shortages on the Homefront. Jessica Malloy has grown up in Tinseltown and is no stranger to its glamour and glitz, even though her overprotective mother would rather see her become a devout Catholic woman than one drawn to the magic of the movies. Her father is publicist to the rising star Ingrid Bergman, and it’s with this screen idol that Jessica finds true devotion and meaning.

As Jessica begins to grow and change in her own views, Hollywood and the Catholic church’s influence overlap, causing chaos that heads towards a boiling point. The church begins to extend its power to the movie studios, working with lawmakers and newspapers to create and passively enforce rules of “decency” that darken the careers of many caught on the wrong side of the church. As the country begins to recover from the ravages of war, the communist threat also begins to take hold of people, even those in Hollywood.

Jessica’s father is caught in the crossfire of all this awakening judgment as his client, the beloved Ingrid Bergman, is ridiculed and harassed for her decision to leave her husband and have her child with Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. As Bergman is expelled from America for her decisions, Jessica’s father begins to feel the heat from the Catholic Church and the Red Scare that is plaguing the nation, turning neighbors against one another. It’s through this time that Jessie begins to see the holes in her own way of thinking and the disastrous implication this stressful time has on her parents’ relationship.

Alcott takes the reader back and forth between adult Jessica and the young Jessica that experienced this turmoil in her adolescence. Just because adult Jessica makes an appearance every couple of chapters does not mean that she has come to terms with the past, and it takes a mysterious invitation to help her cope with what happened in ‘40s Hollywood.

The author, “Kate Alcott”, aka Patricia O’Brien. Image courtesy of Penguin Random House. Photo credit: Katherine Taylor.

My verdict? Not my favorite Kate Alcott work (The Daring Ladies of Lowell takes that cake), but this is still a very well-done story. I loved the setting of the book and the unexpectedness of focusing on the growing fear of communism during the 1940s, an often-overlooked aspect to that tumultuous decade.

One of the biggest strengths of this book is that it really gets the era and growing fears of the American society right. Even the glamour and seemingly-unbreakable hold of the movie studios couldn’t prevent actors, screenwriters, and publicists from being targeted by the church and the scare of communism. In a place that was once known for its openness and general lack of concern for the “normal” moral code of society, Hollywood still fell victim to the trap of the Red Scare.

Another interesting element from this book is Alcott’s cameo of the renowned film star, Ingrid Bergman. I don’t usually like works of historical fiction that feature real celebrities or icons in them, but Alcott’s depiction of Ingrid Bergman does not distract or take away from the other stories in the book. Knowing that Bergman is the tie-in to growing issues that Jessica faces, this portion of the book is still something I could’ve done without.

Something else I had to overcome is my overly-critical analysis of the main character, Jessica. I didn’t always find Jessie to be likable or particularly engaging (I personally related more to her best friend, Kathleen. By the way, can we talk about how the greatest characters are usually the best friends?), but she is still a well written character whose story arc does take an interesting turn.  When the book begins, Jessica is a timid character that longs for glamour but is often stifled by her fearful and overprotective mother. As the book continues, she begins rebelling against her confines and challenging the adults around her. I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age story.

If you love historical fiction and young women testing their societal boundaries then you should read Kate Alcott’s The Hollywood Daughter. Alcott is an excellent storyteller in the historical fiction genre, and it’s her ability to translate the feelings and events of history that really make her stand out as an author. Although this book is marketed mainly to adults, I think teenagers, particularly teenage girls, will relate to the character of Jessica and the struggles she faces in her life. This book would also provide a good introduction for younger audiences to the topic of communism and the massive fear and panic it caused in the mid-century. No matter your reason for reading it, The Hollywood Daughter is a worthwhile read.

 

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