Lee Koe’s (Ministry of Moral Panic, 2013) decade- and continent-spanning novel follows the intersecting lives and careers of three 20th-century film greats.
At the Berlin Press Ball 1928, three young women meet: Anna May Wong, an up-and-coming Chinese-American actress in Hollywood; Marlene Dietrich, a loudmouthed German trying to break into the business; and Leni Riefenstahl, a striving director just embarking on a career making Nazi propaganda films. From there the narration branches out, in alternating, braided sections, to trace the arcs of their lives. An octogenarian Marlene, bedridden in a Paris apartment, receives flirtatious phone calls from a mysterious young man who recites Rilke to her every Sunday, and she’s cared for by a Chinese maid named Bébé, who has fled her rural village in Taishan and a prostitution ring in Marseilles. Anna May wrestles with her romantic feelings for Marlene after a brief post–Press Ball tryst as they co-star in Shanghai Express, and she battles against regular takedowns in the Chinese press, her laundry-owning parents’ disapproval of her career, and Hollywood’s—and the world’s—limited roles and expectations for a Chinese-American woman. “And where are you from? Los Angeles, Anna May said. Before that? Anna May shook her head, repeated herself: Los Angeles. But where were you born? Los Angeles, she said.” Leni Riefenstahl shoots her film Tiefland in the Bavarian Alps, using Roma and Sinti extras from a concentration camp while navigating her relationships with Hitler and Goebbels, and eventually faces public vitriol and rape threats for those Nazi ties. For a novel so dense with historical fact and larger-than-life celebrity cameos (everyone from John F. Kennedy to Walter Benjamin to David Bowie), its portrayals are nuanced enough that each character comes off as deeply human regardless of their fame or importance to the novel’s plot. “In retrospective appraisal, [Marlene] divided her affairs not by gender or duration, but those for whom she’d cooked pot-au-feu and those she had not.…Marlene would not have guessed that she had one more pot-au-feu left in her, and for an anonymous caller no less.” It’s the steady accumulation of intimate details like these that creates a sweeping sense of history that feels truly alive.
Expansive, complex, and utterly engrossing.