Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 14, 2015

When Julie Crawford leaves Fort Wayne, Indiana for Hollywood, she never imagines she'll cross paths with Carole Lombard, the dazzling actress from Julie's provincial Midwestern hometown. Although the young woman has dreams of becoming a screenwriter, the only job Julie's able to find is one in the studio publicity office of the notoriously demanding producer David O. Selznick—who is busy burning through directors, writers and money as he begins filming Gone with the Wind. Although tensions run high on the set, Julie finds she can step onto the back lot, take in the smell of smoky gunpowder and the soft rustle of hoop skirts, and feel the magical world ofGone with the Wind come to life. Julie's access to real-life magic comes when Carole Lombard hires her as an assistant and invites her into the glamorous world Carole shares with Clark Gable—who is about to move into movie history as the dashing Rhett Butler. Carole Lombard, happily profane and uninhibited, makes no secret of her relationship with Gable, which poses something of a problem for the studio as Gable is technically still married—and the last thing the film needs is more negative publicity. Julie is there to fend off the overly curious reporters, hoping to prevent details about the affair from slipping out. But she can barely keep up with her blonde employer, let alone control what comes out of Carole's mouth, and--as their friendship grows - soon finds she doesn't want to. Carole, both wise and funny, becomes Julie's model for breaking free of the past. In the ever-widening scope of this story, Julie is given a front-row seat to not one but two of the greatest love affairs of all time: the undeniable on-screen chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett, and off screen, the deepening love between Carole and Clark. Yet beneath the shiny façade, things in Hollywood are never quite what they seem, and Julie must learn to balance career aspirations and her own budding romance with outsized personalities and the overheated drama on set. Vivid, romantic, and filled with Old Hollywood details, A Touch of Stardust will entrance, surprise, and delight.

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I've such mixed feelings about Kate Alcott's A Touch of Stardust that I hardly know where to begin. There are things I loved about it, but there are things I disliked in equal measure.

I suppose I should make it clear that I think Alcott had a good idea here, several of them in fact. Problem is they don't make a remotely cohesive story when packed like sardines in a single narrative. I'm sorry, but someone needed to take a pair of scissors to this piece and break it down into two or three separate novels. Fleshed out and streamlined, I'd have easily given every one of Alcott's ideas four stars if not more and I'm one of the stingiest reviewers I know. 

I'm not exaggerating when I say Gone With the Wind is one of my favorite movies, so it should come as no surprise that I think Alcott was onto something in fictionalizing the details of its filming. I enjoyed the scenes Alcott created, but I couldn't help wondering why Julie spent so much time on set. Julie doesn't work for Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel or Butterfly McQueen. I hate to point out the obvious, but Julie spends the bulk of the novel attached to Carole Lombard so her almost constant presence makes little sense in the grand scheme of things, especially as her employer is so often elsewhere. 

Speaking of Lombard, I felt the actress a vivid and colorful addition to Julie's world. That said, however, I didn't find her role in the story even slightly convincing. Carole has the glamour and personality, but her friendship with Julie lacked validity and her position as mentor seemed preposterous when Alcott's starry-eyed would-be writer has access to Academy Award winner Frances Marion. I understand the author's fascination with Lombard, but if she wanted to write about Mrs. Gable she should have let the actress take center stage. Marion plucking Ms. Crawford from an obscure secretarial existence would have been a better angle, believable and within the realm of Julie's ambition.

How Andy's story line failed to make the jacket description is beyond my comprehension. His personal ties to the conflict in Europe, the anti-Semitism he faces in Hollywood and his frustration with an industry that refuses to acknowledge the Nazi threat was solid gold. Alcott could have played that for days. Julie and Andy working on a script with the support of Lombard and Howard, battling to have their voices heard... I get excited just thinking about such a setup, but as it stands Alcott doesn't use the material to its best advantage and sadly regulates it to minor plot points that ultimately lack purpose or resolution. 

This review is turning into a novel in and of itself, but if you're still with me, please understand my concerns aren't limited to the story's construction. Alcott's narrative depends on an overwhelming amount of implausible coincidence and that bothered me to no end. Julie's first job in Hollywood just happens to be with David O. Selznick the day he begins filming Gone With the Wind? She gets fired hardly three pages in and just happens to bump into Carole Lombard who is so smitten with Julie's gumption that she immediately shelters the floundering Mary Sue under her protective wing? Excuse my impertinence, but gag me. The situation is impossibly far-fetched and even if it weren't, it bears far too much similarity to Tess Collins landing a position with Lucile Duff Gordon the very day Titanic sets sail in the opening scenes of Alcott's The Dressmaker. It's the same scenario in different trimmings and I was no more impressed this go round than I was the last.

I've other quibbles, but I think I've made my point well enough. As a novel, A Touch of Stardust has much to recommend it, but I can't ignore the poor structure of the story or its overabundance of plot. I don't mean to be harsh, but I think this one could have been much more effective if it had been executed with a tad more care and discretion. 

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“I love my work—I feel excited when it all comes together, when something special comes out of the whole messy process. But what good is it? We pump out movies on anything and everything. Here we are, doing a romance set in the Civil War, but we aren’t doing anything about Hitler.”
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Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Bummer. This one has been on my radar. Awesome review though!

Alana Harvell said...

I was pretty disappointed with the latest Kate Alcott book as well! I really enjoyed The Dressmaker, but A Touch of Stardust was pretty weak on plot and character development. I have to admit I haven't seen the movie Gone with the Wind, though I have read the book, so maybe that's a crucial component to enjoying Stardust.-