A woman renounces a promising film career to raise two children, their life journeys weaving a gossamer tale of transitions and death.
Isabel Maher Murphy seems on the verge of movie stardom as Hollywood is turning from silent to talking pictures. Her screen test for Louis B. Mayer apparently pleased the “suits” of that time at M-G-M, but Archer chooses to walk off the set and return to her home in Rhode Island and marriage to an enterprising insurance salesman who could have walked off the streets of Sinclair Lewis’s Zenith. Like Garbo, Isabel, now Bel, never fully articulates her reasons for leaving Hollywood. Nor does author Howard offer full explanations in this third installment of a planned four-novel series (Big as Life, 2001; A Lover’s Almanac, 1998). Rather, with some sense of mystery, she spins out Bel’s life story, and the life stories of her daughter, Rita; her son, Joe, a Jesuit priest; and of a curious, young neighbor, Gemma Riccardi. Like silent film itself, the tales are told from alternating points of view (not always meaningfully “edited” together) and are highlighted by haunting, powerful images. Joe’s mission leads him to the violence of El Salvador, while chubby Rita faces the violence of the Mob through her marriage to a gangster. Gemma, a photographer seeking to imprint on her work a singular style, petitions Bel with questions: Why did she leave Hollywood? Was raising a family in a small coastal town more rewarding than acting? Bel’s answers appear encoded in moments she shares with her children, as when she delights in the role of a declaiming guide during their visit to a Melville museum. Bel’s life—and the lives of her children, reaching melancholy ends—unreel in what may have been her favorite film.
Meticulous and graceful, though some may find the allusions, dense sentences, and sometimes-opaque narrative a touch rarefied.