Monday, July 15, 2019
Published January 2018 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: checked out from my local library
It is 1914, and twenty-five-year-old Frances Marion has left her (second) husband and her Northern California home for the lure of Los Angeles, where she is determined to live independently as an artist. But the word on everyone’s lips these days is “flickers”—the silent moving pictures enthralling theatergoers. Turn any corner in this burgeoning town and you’ll find made-up actors running around, as a movie camera captures it all.
In this fledgling industry, Frances finds her true calling: writing stories for this wondrous new medium. She also makes the acquaintance of actress Mary Pickford, whose signature golden curls and lively spirit have earned her the title “America’s Sweetheart.” The two ambitious young women hit it off instantly, their kinship fomented by their mutual fever to create, to move audiences to a frenzy, to start a revolution.
But their ambitions are challenged by both the men around them and the limitations imposed on their gender—and their astronomical success could come at a price. As Mary, the world’s highest paid and most beloved actress, struggles to live her life under the spotlight, she also wonders if it is possible to find love, even with the dashing actor Douglas Fairbanks. Frances, too, longs to share her life with someone. As in any good Hollywood story, dramas will play out, personalities will clash, and even the deepest friendships might be shattered.
The Girls In The Picture is Benjamin’s fifth novel (I have her sixth, Mistress of the Ritz on hold at the library); I’ve read them all. It’s safe to say I’m a fan. Benjamin always finds interesting women in history to write about and her research is always thorough; I’m always learning when I’m reading her books. The Girls In The Picture was no exception. I’d heard about Mary Pickford, of course, but I had no idea the influence and power she had wielded in the early days of movie making. I had never heard of Frances Marion nor was I aware of how many women were involved in making movies in those early days of silent movies.
While The Girls In The Picture is about two women who helped pioneer the film industry and the rise of movies from “flickers” to “talkies,” it is primarily the story of a complicated friendship that spans six decades.
What I Liked:
Benjamin moves the story back and forth between Mary and Frances and I enjoyed getting to “see” both women’s point of view. It’s always good to be reminded that there are two sides to every story. See more on this, though, below.
Learning about the early days of movie making. Did you know that the actors were originally called “movies,” not the film itself? Or that women were the majority of the “scenarists,” the early screen play writers? Or that Frances Marion was the first writer, male or female, to earn two Academy Awards for writing?
The relationship between Frances and Mary. While they were besties, there was a balance of power issue at play with both women fighting to be at the top of their fields and it gave a spark to their friendship.
Reading about how two women rose to the top of their field in a time when women had very few opportunities to thrive outside of the home. Benjamin had me cheering when Mary was finally able to take control of her own career and when Pickford; her husband, actor Douglas Fairbanks; Charlie Chaplin, and director D. W. Griffiths started their own studio, United Artists. Sadly, both women also had to watch as men took back the power when movie making became a big business and not just an art form.
What I Didn’t Like (As Well):
My dad pointed out recently that I am prone to saying that a book could have, should have, been shorter. I’m afraid I’m saying it again, mostly because it sometimes felt like things got repetitive.
I wished that both stories had been told from the same point of view; Frances’ was first person and felt vibrant, whereas Mary’s was third person and felt much less so. Perhaps Benjamin had more source material she was trying to work into Mary’s storyline and, therefore, less wiggle room with that narrative.
Honestly, I got tired of “listening” to Mary whine about how she was stuck playing a young girl. Not necessarily a critique about the book other than that I might have preferred for the characters to be more equally appealing. And all of the whining made what happens toward the end make it all the more difficult for me to understand why Frances reacted the way she did.
The good far outweighs the things I didn’t like in this book, as always happens with Benjamin’s books. They are always interesting with strong characters I’m happy to have gotten to know. The Girls In The Picture would make an excellent book club selection with a lot to talk about, including friendship, addiction, power, abuse, ambition, the rise of the movie industry, women’s empowerment, and the role the public plays in the lives of celebrities.