Monday, July 13, 2015

The Woman in the Movie Star Dress by Praveen Asthana

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: February 20, 2015

A young woman comes to Hollywood to escape her past. She finds work in a vintage clothing store that sells clothes used in the movies. One day she discovers a way to transfer human character through these vintage clothes, and she uses this ability to transform from a lonely, insecure young woman to a glamorous heartbreaker. But she also discovers that with the good comes the bad as character flaws are transferred too. She begins to worry: what if one of the vintage clothes she has sold to some unsuspecting customer had been previously worn by a deeply troubled soul? One day her fears become crystallized—intrigued by a man who comes asking about a beautiful scarlet dress she has recently sold, she looks into its history and discovers a secret that terrifies her. So begins a quest to find the scarlet dress complicated by a budding romance and the threads of her past, which intervene like trip wires. Emotions run high, and in the background the quickening drumbeat of the race to find the scarlet dress, potent as a loose, loaded weapon.

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Studio publicity portrait for film Niagara (1953).
The premise of Praveen Asthana’s The Woman in the Movie Star Dress looked vaguely interesting when I skimmed the description, but my main interest in the book was that it wasn’t historic fiction. I’d just come off a heavy hitting period piece and I was looking for a break. I mean no offense, but I didn’t expect much of this piece and was entirely unprepared when it captured my imagination hook, line, and sinker. 

I’m a voracious reader, but when I don’t have my nose in a book, I greatly enjoy movies which probably explains my enthusiasm for the myriad of motion picture references in The Woman in the Movie Star Dress. The title garment is the striking red number worn by Marilyn Monroe in Niagara, but the story also refers films such as When Harry Met Sally, Roman Holiday, Before Sunset, Witness for the Prosecution, Alien, Silence of the Lambs, Double Indemnity, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Casablanca. There are others, but what I’m getting at is how Asthana’s allusions draw readers into the narrative by playing on the emotional connections we make to films and those who star in them. It’s an interesting tactic, but it works beautifully beginning to end. 

Another thing I loved about this book is how deliciously atmospheric it felt. I reveled in the authenticity of scenes at Griffith Park, onboard the Queen Mary and inside the chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano. I grinned over the author’s illustration of the street performers that occupy the cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre and sympathized with Genevieve’s frustration with traffic on the five. It isn’t often that one sees their corner of the world through the eyes of a storyteller, but I can’t help feeling Asthana interpretation genuine. 

As to Genevieve, well, Asthana’s leading lady took some getting used to, but she grew on me as the story progressed and I felt quite connected to her when all was said and done. She’s an emotionally complex character and I liked that a lot. The same can be said of much of the cast now that I stop and think about it. Renzo and Todd are just as distinct and not just from one another. They’ve a unique quality about them, something real and relatable. 

Conceptually intriguing and dramatically dark, The Woman in the Movie Star Dressed proved an absolute pleasure. Brilliantly imaged and thoroughly addicting. 

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But what she was recalling was not the stars, but the characters they had played: Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Ava Gardner in The Killers. What they all had in common was that they were femme fatales—seductive, manipulative, destroyers of hapless men. She needed to be that.
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