The Starlet by Mary McNamara opens with a bang as Mercy Talbot, a nearly naked, drunken, stoned actress attempts to climb a public fountain in Rome. Paparazzi, quite aptly compared to a zombie plague, wait for Mercy to slip, fall, and/or die. Enter Juliette Greyson, a former drug addict, a Hollywood insider, and possibly the novel’s heroine, who swoops in and rescues Mercy, both from herself and the paparazzi. Mercy shows her gratitude by vomiting on the ground, rather than Juliette’s shoes, popping a few more pills, and passing out in Juliette’s arms.
Mercy is a character the audience can both love and hate—sometimes at the same time. Clearly the statements “Mercy Talbot is 23 years old. She has been famous since she was eleven. She never stood a chance ... ” are meant to make the audience at least somewhat sympathetic to this character as are passages like “‘Carbs,’ Mercy said happily, grating drifts of parmesan onto an alarmingly large portion of linguini. ‘They’re the only real drugs in Hollywood. If I could have bread even once a week, I wouldn’t need cocaine.’” Conversely, when Mercy is snorting cocaine and gulping vodka, sleeping with other people’s spouses, or crying/whining about her life, she is not particularly likable or sympathetic.
The book contains most of the makings of a fine summer read: romance, sex, mystery, and murder. Following up McNamara’s bestseller The Oscar Season and containing many of the same characters, The Starlet‘s plot is relatively simple and somewhat expected: a Hollywood movie is being shot on location in Rome. After one of the stars mysteriously dies and Juliette rescues Mercy from the public fountain, the film moves to Juliette’s Tuscan retreat. The expected chaos, another mysterious death, and a love triangle fill out the rest of the story.
The book is pure Hollywood, and for those that indulge in E!, TMZ, or Entertainment Tonight, certain scenes or characters may seem quite familiar. Angie Talbot, Mercy’s mother, is the quintessential stage mom. Angie runs her daughter’s life, tells her what roles to take, sells pictures of her to the tabloids, supplies her with cocaine, and reminds her not to eat dairy because, as Angie tells Mercy, “you know how dairy makes you bloat”. Other characters include a self-absorbed shrink with a book to peddle, Juliette and her two potential love interests, and a slew of interns and producers, writers, key grips, and best boys.
Perhaps the most interesting character is Juliette’s cousin Gabriel Delfino. Gabriel is a former drug addict, but currently spends his days as an eco-friendly, philosophizing inn keeper. He describes the movie-making process as “ ... a three-ring blockbuster circus with a carbon footprint bigger than King Kong’s” and worries about the dyes and wood pulp waste from the constant rewrites. Still, when he sees inaccuracies, he can’t seem to help himself: “‘Um, are we supposed to be in Italy here?’ he asked as he watched with horrified fascination as the set dresser moved plants this way and that. ‘Because there are no gardenias in Italy. Excuse me?’ he called to the woman in black who seemed to be in charge. ‘No gardenias. In Italy.’”
The prose is slick, the dialog believable, and the humor subtle: “Juliette had nothing against tourists; she even understood the economic and emotional need to travel in packs. She just wished, fervently, for a world without fanny packs.”
The moral messages could be slightly subtler. For example, Mercy’s thoughts as she climbs the fountain in the beginning of the book: “She needed to get to the top. That was it. She was climbing so she could get to the top. Simple. If she got to the top, she could really see things—clearly, for once ... ”
Most of the book moves well, but at times, there is almost too much and one starts to wonder how many times can Mercy get drunk or high and almost fall off a building? Or, how many times can Juliette step in and save Mercy? How many times can Juliette debate the direction of her life?
The last chapter, however, and particularly the last part of the last chapter, is nice. The book ends with grace and beauty partnered with just the right touches of humor and hope. And, of course, in true Hollywood fashion, with lots of room for the possibility of a sequel.
McNamara has been a journalist for the Los Angeles Times for nearly 20 years, and she has written “hundreds of entertainment stories, including a recent-much-buzzed-about front-page story on the television career of Barack Obama, and regularly shares her Hollywood scoops on television”. Her first book, Oscar Season, was praised for its realistic portrayal of the Hollywood scene. Most likely The Starlet will be as well. After all, how difficult is it to think of an actress (or singer or heiress) who is constantly in the news because of her drunkenness, promiscuity, drug use, or some combination thereof? Perhaps one can only hope that some of these real life “starlets” have the happy ending that The Starlet has.