Reviewer Karen Dahood : Karen lives in Tucson, AZ. After 35 years as a writer for businesses and nonprofits, she has turned to writing mysteries,the subtext of which addresses ageism, unpreparedness for aging, and America's wealth of experience and wisdom. Learn more about eldersleuth Sophie George at the Website Moxie Cosmos; Making Sense of Life Through Writing.
Author: Ellen Meister
Publisher: Putnam, 2015
Great characters make this
unusual novel compelling. What makes it unusual is that the
characters are both dead and alive. Their story spans decades of
experience in New York City, with the legendary (and deceased)
Dorothy Parker as the pivotal personality who brings together two
imaginary people in the literary capital’s contemporary publishing
and media industries. For those who don’t know, Dorothy Parker is
not remembered for her warm heart.
At best, she is an American version of the Dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey, known for her brilliant and shameless “zingers.” Parker established her career as a critic in the 1920s, moving through the company of fashionable writers, some of whom appear in this novel. They do this by emerging as dust particles from the open pages of a guest book at Manhattan’s historic Algonquin Hotel. That was the venue for gatherings of some of the literary world’s luminaries, known throughout the 1920s as the Algonquin Round Table. The guest book has magical powers for those who signed it. They are offered a chance at immortality.
Meister has made up one
member who failed to sign the book. Ted Shriver was an award-winning
1970s novelist whose reputation was ruined when some of the
paragraphs in his last novel were discovered to have been lifted from
another source. He has been more or less a recluse since that time
and is now waiting to die of a brain tumor.
Norah Wolfe, the young producer of a faltering television talk show, and a Shriver fan, discovers where he is, and attempts to save the show and her job by getting him to explain on live TV how it happened. Suffice it to say, the novel evolves from the collusion of the real live Norah and the ghost of Parker – with some schmaltz thrown in. There are glimpses of the meaningful friendship Parker had with humorist Robert Benchley and her rivalry with Lillian Hellman.
There are many complications. Fortunately, Meister emphasizes the present and gives us credible women and their ambivalent and transforming identities of more recent decades. There is a great deal of meat left on the much picked-over bones of the star-making machine. As a former creative writing student, a Midwesterner who studied briefly in the Northeast, I especially enjoyed the wrath of the wife whose husband neglected her as he climbed to fame. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen in other places, but New York and its New England breeding grounds, judging from what I saw, demanded bad behavior of its artists.
Meister has the language of literary pretentiousness and bon mots of personalities down pat. Apparently, she has a genuine admiration of Dorothy Parker, as this is her second novel about her and Meister has a Facebook following of Dorothy Parker fans. (For perhaps her own amusement, some hundreds are listed in her acknowledgments.) She has three other contemporary novels published as well. There seems to be even more to Meister, though, that is hinted at in the very witty biography on www.ellenmeister.com.
If you are drawn in by the literary history, I recommend supplemental reading of the 1956 interview with Dorothy Parker in The Paris Review online. It is also available in The Paris Review Interviews, Book I.