If a novel’s success were assumed to be commensurate to its length, one would be greatly disappointed upon opening the weighty Cheat and Charmer. While the Hollywood-based, ’50s-era filial drama delivers stories of hasty affairs, sisterly catfights, and a housewife’s discontent, the intrigue is only half-realized. Instead, Elizabeth Frank’s first novel — arriving 20 years after her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the poet Louise Bogan — delivers many compelling scenes of a woman’s struggle to balance her own needs with those of her family, but dually flounders in its disregard for pithiness.
Cheat and Charmer points the spotlight on Dinah Lasker, a rather unremarkable figure in the midst of Hollywood glamour. Sister to movie star Veevi Milligan (imagine a diva as radiant as Elizabeth Taylor and as saucy as Bette Davis), Dinah is an interminable plain Jane who’s always played second chair to her sister’s stardom. Not only does she lack her sister’s pizzazz and stunning beauty, she’s also plagued by a stutter that has kept her from pursuing a film career. In her youth, Dinah lives vicariously through Veevi’s edgy avant-garde coterie, schmoozing with the intellectual European exiles who congregate at her sister’s house, hanging on their words and ideas. Yet all the while she is plagued by a sense of her own inadequacy, of not having a college education, of not having read the “right” books, of just not being Veevi.
Dinah lays claim to her chunk of the American dream by marrying Jake Lasker, one of the few successful Jewish movie directors who’s made it big in Hollywood, and by creating a respite at home, raising their two children. These underpinnings of normalcy, by conventional standards at least, act the fortress for Dinah’s shortcomings. She finds fulfillment listening while her husband flutters through his budding film ideas, she organizes play dates for the children and star-filled parties, and counts herself lucky for having achieved the financial security her parents never maintained.
Still, in her retreat from the vagaries of life, problems encroach and threaten to crack the thin veneer: Jake, unbeknownst to Dinah, has made a habit of adultery, and Dinah betrays her sister by testifying before HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee), admitting to her past involvement with the Communist party and outing other members — including Veevi — so that Jake can keep his lucrative job at Marathon pictures. Standing up to secure her family’s well-being for once, Dinah unknowingly sets the stage for an even greater threat — Veevi’s subsequent move into the Lasker household. Veevi’s American passport is revoked, her marriage is dissolving, and when she returns stateside from Paris with her two daughters in tow, she’s unable to find employment because of her communist affiliation. Dinah and Jake feel guilty for their part in making Veevi’s recent failures harder to bear. They take her in and provide her with work, and she reciprocates by driving a wedge in their model post-war family.
The humanity Frank gives to her characters partially redeems the other pitfalls of the epic-length story. At times the dialogue is stilted, a bit too facile to seem real. Take Veevi’s incisive remark to Lorna, Dinah’s daughter, when she asks if she can rummage through the piles of donated clothes her cousin Claire is looking through:
‘Why, no, dear… Claire’s thin, and you’re fat, and Claire’s poor, and you’re rich.
To which Lorna responds:
I hate you, Veevi… I hope you die. I hate you too, Mommy.
Albeit Lorna is still a child, but this isn’t an isolated incidence. Far more prevalent throughout the story is a tendency to violate one of the first laws of writing fiction: showing and not telling. The narrator describes far too much of the emotional terrain in the novel, not trusting that the characters will reveal themselves through their actions.
For giving voice to a quiet, strong woman with vision, Frank often doesn’t do Dinah her justice. While it’s only natural that Dinah continues to bend over backwards for Veevi, it’s frustrating to see her compromise herself repeatedly for people who have no qualms about walking all over her. Veevi outshines Dinah, whether she’s in the lead role or not — a drunken mess on her bad days and cutting others down with her acerbic tongue when she’s feeling herself again. All the while Dinah plays into it. Dinah is often the pawn who bears the brunt of being used by Veevi, and cowers in the name of love. When Veevi is hospitalized for burns Dinah blames herself, “It seemed to Dinah that if she had truly loved her sister none of this would have happened.” Once again, Dinah feels guilty and assumes responsibility. And after so many pages of personal martyrdom, you just want to say: Get a grip.