FIRST NIGHTS by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer


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 Richly evocative double portrait of two extraordinary yet finally elusive women, silent-screen star Anna Asta and her Caribbean maid Ivy, who meet only after Anna's retirement from films but spend most of their alternating narratives recounting their earlier lives. The first half is dominated by Ivy's recollections of her magical, turbulent childhood on Green Island, but her life--even after the affair that takes her away from the Indies to Nostrand Avenue and a doomed marriage--continues to be shaped by Green Island ``story tailor'' Miss Blue, who listens to her dreams and troubles and then suggests new, more shapely or fulfilling endings. Meanwhile, Anna's life follows Greta Garbo's. Discovered in a Swedish shop by director Max Lilly (Mauritz Stiller), she's brought to Hollywood, where the shy, lumpish farm-girl takes The Studio (MGM) and town by storm in a string of Noble Sinner hits beginning with The Roses (The Torrent). Fired from her second American film, The Siren (The Temptress), Max returns to Sweden to die, while Anna, wondering what's become of a life that now seems compounded entirely of movies, lies, memories, and studio publicity, plunges into an affair with self-destructive costar Charlie Harrow (John Gilbert), a series of abortions, and a parade of fallen heroines until declining European markets force her to try a comedy, Double Trouble (Two-Faced Woman), which makes her realize, devastatingly, that both halves of her personality represented in the film have become equally unreal. A healing epilogue back on Green Island is more fervent than convincing. As usual with Schaeffer (Buffalo Afternoon, 1989, etc.), the weight of lived experience becomes overwhelming, at times oppressive, and the models for that experience--Garbo's career, Andersen's fairy tale ``The Snow Queen''--are designedly inadequate. Schaeffer's exquisite writing burrows too deeply inside her two heroines to allow them, or us, the comfort of wholeness.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-394-58820-7
Page count: 640pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1993


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