Kate Alcott, author of the New York Times bestseller, “The Dressmaker,” returns with a nostalgic novel about the golden age of the movie industry — “The Hollywood Daughter.”
Jessica is the daughter of Gabriel Malloy, a publicist who ascends the industry ladder at Selznick Studio. As her father represents the biggest celebrities in the business, Jessica’s life is imbued with a certain amount of stardust.
One star in particular becomes her hero after a childhood encounter: Ingrid Bergman.
After her role as a nun in “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and as the star of “Joan of Arc,” Bergman essentially achieved the status of sainthood in the eyes of the American public.
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The novel explores the famous actress’s rise to fame and scandalous affair with director Roberto Rossellini through Jessica’s naive eyes. After meeting Bergman and getting a sneak peek at “Casablanca” (just one of her father’s industry perks), she idolizes the actress and is enamored with her persona, both on screen and off.
The Ingrid Bergman that Alcott creates is more human and flawed than the celebrity we know from the movies. She insists, “I am an ordinary woman. Don’t ask too much of your heroes.”
She is a captivating presence, and it’s easy to empathize with Jessica’s fascination and opinion that Bergman is “so beautiful, so queenly — remote and real at the same time.”
Jessica’s love of Bergman and film and her desire to adhere to the morals of her religious upbringing provide the central conflict of the story.
Her loyalties to her Hollywood father and her Catholic mother are constantly tested as she wrestles with the worldly versus the spiritual. The two worlds reconcile momentarily when Bergman comes to her school to film “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” But this reconciliation is temporary, and the schism between Hollywood and religion is deepened more by criticism from the Catholic Legion of Decency.
The true antagonist of “The Hollywood Daughter,” however, is the House Committee on Un-American Activities, as the livelihoods of many actors and writers start to disintegrate under suspicions of communism.
Jessica’s father and Bergman are pitted against forces that can use the faintest rumors to have them blacklisted. As her father claims, “Communist … Nail that label onto the forehead of some writer or actor, and you’ve killed a career.”
“The Hollywood Daughter” is at first loaded with nostalgia, and Los Angeles of the 1940s and 1950s feels simple and elegant. Teenagers spend afternoons at soda shops or lazing under palm trees while reading tabloids about the most iconic stars in the history of film.
And in some ways, the era must have been simpler: People flocked to movie theaters for their chief source of entertainment, the television not yet a household staple.
But the novel slowly unravels this idealistic image to show the danger of conformity and the overwhelming pressure to do what is expected in a culture where aberration is not tolerated.
It was enthralling to get a look at the glitz of old Hollywood, a world populated by “whip-thin women in slithery satin gowns and handsome men in crisp tuxedos,” and then to peel back the celluloid veneer to see up close the rumors that scandalized the country.
The novel has a particularly cinematic ending, and the drama of McCarthyism in the film industry feels particularly resonant today.
Erin Saxon is an intern from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s creative writing MFA program.
“The Hollywood Daughter” by Kate Alcott (320 pages; Doubleday; $26.95)