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SISTER HOLLYWOOD by C.K. Stead

SISTER HOLLYWOOD

By C.K. Stead

Pub Date: Aug. 20th, 1990
Publisher: St. Martin's

Familiar ground--Hollywood's heyday--but Stead eschews both glitz and sardonic wit in favor of appealing, almost old-fashioned storytelling; the first of the New Zealand critic and author's five novels to appear in the US. Narrator Bill Harper grows up in New Zealand during WW II and its aftermath, loving Hollywood and poetry, trying to ignore his father's occasional violence, his mother's emotional instability. Sister Edie vanished one day never to be seen again--unless that is indeed her face that has flashed across the movie screen twice in bit parts; her fate is the family obsession. As an adult, Bill tracks Edie down and tells her story: Using the name Arlene, she arrived in Hollywood with her Australian actor husband, who turns to alcoholism when his hopes are frustrated. Bogart (one of many real-life Hollywood people to have a cameo role here) introduces her to a famous producer, who is amazed that she's seeking work as a typist rather than as an actress: he offers her work almost immediately. Arlene quickly becomes his mistress and also an important screenwriter, treated by the head of the studio with immense respect; along the way, she observes artistic and political compromises (e.g., blacklisting of leftists)--accepting the former but objecting to the latter. Bill's memories of childhood and adolescence are evocative and convincing, while Arlene's success--due to intelligence and good common sense--is unbelievable but gratifying. Unlikely to linger long in memory, but Stead's quiet skill insures an enjoyable read.