A Hollywood publicist’s daughter idolizes movie star Ingrid Bergman.
It’s 1959, and Jesse Malloy, a confirmed New Yorker, is assailing the still-impenetrable glass ceiling at Newsweek when she receives an unexpected invitation—to attend the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. She left her California girlhood behind in 1950 to attend Bennington College, and the invitation spurs memories and an extended flashback to a time when the destiny of her small family became intertwined with that of the luminous Bergman. In spottily period-appropriate language, a sun-dappled period in Jesse’s life is revisited. Jesse’s father, Gabriel, is a studio publicist whose career has skyrocketed, along with Bergman’s, thanks to his shrewd positioning of the movie Casablanca. The family buys a Beverly Hills mansion with a pool. Jesse’s mother, Vanessa, a devout Roman Catholic, enrolls Jesse at Saint Ann’s, an all-girls Catholic school, where her sojourn is remarkably trauma-free. The true milestones of Jesse’s adolescence are her brief encounters with Bergman. Her admiration for the star morphs into affinity when Saint Ann’s, through the good offices of Gabriel, is selected as the location for The Bells of St. Mary’s. Thanks to this film and her later star-vehicle Joan of Arc, Bergman becomes the darling of the Catholic Church and its censorious minions the Legion of Decency, whose movie ratings terrorize Hollywood. When Bergman leaves her stifling marriage for a liaison with director Roberto Rossellini that results in an out-of-wedlock child, all bets are off. Alcott capably depicts the undercurrents of a family challenged by high stakes and hairpin career turns in the redbaiting blacklist era, but the book is riddled with superfluous come-to-realization moments, such as “I was having my first glimmer of the fact that absolutes are tricky in the real world.” The characters are appealing anyway, and their earnestness and good will, in the face of all that trickiness, are poignant.
A troubled era in America’s past brought to life.