Desert Isle Keeper
City of Flickering Light
In City of Flickering Light, readers are introduced to twenty-one-year-old Irene van Beck, a woman who has grown disenchanted with her life as a dancer in a bottom-tier Burlesque show. She knows there’s more to life than removing her clothing in front of a different group of men each night, and she’s determined to find out what her future holds. To this end, she jumps off a moving train and heads to Hollywood where she hopes to start a career as an actress.
Irene doesn’t make this journey on her own. She’s joined by fellow dancer Millie and comedian Henry, both of whom are hoping to make it big on the silver screen as well. Together, these three will face prejudice, poverty, and untold social pressures as they fight to make a place for themselves amidst the glitz and glamor of Hollywood in the 1920s.
AAR reviewers Lisa Fernandes and Shannon Dyer read this story of Hollywood in the Silent Era and got together to discuss it – here are their thoughts.
Shannon: I adore books set in the 1920s, and I also love books set in the early days of Hollywood. I honestly can’t get enough of either of those things, so it seemed like City of Flickering Light would be right up my alley. What drew you to this novel?
Lisa: I’m a HUGE silent movie buff! Huge – I even ran a fanclub for Clara Bow and for Mary Pickford on YahooGroups! So this one was a shoe-in for me.
Shannon: Irene feels like the central focus of the story. She’s the one who came up with the plan to leave the Burlesque show, and once she, Millie, and Henry were off the train, she seemed to know what steps they needed to take to get to Hollywood. I was drawn to her level-headed approach to things, as well as to the glimmers of vulnerability we get as the story develops.
Lisa: Irene was a great central point of their little group, though the narrative is balanced between their three voices (sidenote: did they remind you of a semi-genderswapped, more traumatized and queerer version of Kathy Selden, Don Lockwood, and Cosmo Brown from Singin’ in the Rain? Because that’s the vibe I got!). Irene was the grown up, the adult who doesn’t plan on starving and doesn’t plan on letting Hollywood crush her after what happened to the act she had with her sister. With Millie’s more starry-eyed, impractical, and yet scarred outlook and Henry’s shyness, Irene’s directness made an interesting third, and I loved her strength and clear-headedness – of course she becomes a screenwriter. The flawed side of that was her anger and rage, both of which were understandable.
Shannon: Millie was a difficult character for me to warm up to. She’s so clingy and needy, and I found myself frustrated by her flightiness. Fortunately, she did grow on me the more I learned about her, but she was definitely my least favorite of the three main characters. Did you like her any better?
Lisa: I was the opposite – I found her easier to warm up to than Irene, even though I liked Irene. Millie’s been through so much thanks to her terrible childhood, and she was spat out into the world when she was sixteen and starving for love. Her impracticality, her flightiness and sometimes her overly-cheery chatterboxing all made sense considering how desperate she is at heart. I did feel like sometimes the author heaped an unfair amount of misery on her and made her a vehicle for every Terrible-Thing-That-Can-Happen-To-A-Woman-In-A-Woman’s-Novel, and I did feel like having her try heroin was just an excuse for angst. But it all paid off when she got to ride that horse and save the day, especially since she did it in front of a certain person. And she ended up being whip-smart enough to challenge the system.
Shannon: I agree that Millie was subjected to entirely too much overall crappiness. Let’s talk about Henry. I loved the way he just seemed to fit in with Millie and Irene. There was something about him that drew me in almost immediately, and I got the impression that other characters in the story had similar responses to him. He’s the kind of guy I’d like to have as a brother or best friend, a type I don’t often run across in today’s fiction. He has a complicated past that is slowly revealed, but he wasn’t overly melodramatic or angst-ridden because of it. How did Henry strike you?
Lisa: I LOVED Henry – and your comment harkens right up to my Singin’ in the Rain reference – out of the three of them, he’d be the Cosmo! Each of the protagonists had a place in my heart, but I think he was my favorite of the three. I loved how his shyness mixed with his optimism and determination, and how good a friend he was to Irene and Millie while trying to learn the ropes and stay true to his dreams of making it big and accept his own homosexuality. His friendships with Irene and Millie were so different – with Irene it was a meeting of the minds, with Millie they were like two kids, just hiking around Hollywood and having fun.
Shannon: The author explores the many facets of love in this novel. Some of the characters find romantic love, but the main focus is placed on the kind of love close friends feel for one another. I found the relationships between the characters to be very believable.
Lisa: They were VERY believable. And while we’re talking relationships between the characters, I loved Dan’s with Irene and Henry’s with Edward. And speaking of them, how did you feel about our minor characters: Dan, Gert, and others? Dan was my favorite, and I loved how blatantly honest they were about how he felt about being forced to pretend to be white to make it in the industry.
Shannon: I recognize Gert from the author’s 2016 novel The Tumbling Turner Sisters, and seeing her again here made me smile. Dan definitely added a lot to the story. He opened Irene’s eyes to so much in the way of injustice, not that she wasn’t already aware that bad things happened, but he widened the scope of that awareness. They also made such a sweet couple! And on the subject of injustice, Irene, Millie, and Henry each face prejudice in different ways. Did their reactions to this treatment feel authentic to you?
Lisa: I loved how the author handled Henry’s Jewishness and his homosexuality; it felt realistic to the time period and realistic to the kind of self-depreciating person he was. Irene, meanwhile, is in more of a reactor role – she learns about what happened to Dan on the reservation and Indian school, and learns through him to expose those evils to the world – and otherwise suffers the sexism of the film industry in a very realistic way. Poor Millie, meanwhile, suffers the pitfalls that affect every single starlet in a cautionary magazine article; I think maybe one plight would’ve worked instead of three.
Shannon: I was immediately smitten with Ms. Fay’s description of 1921 Hollywood. The setting took on a life of its own, which doesn’t happen in all books. Did you enjoy the sense of place in the novel?
Lisa: Definitely! Her dialogue was SO good, filled with great lines, and she managed to really make me feel the steam heat of the period, from flop houses to dance halls to fancy parties and a busy Hollywood set.
Shannon: What’s your final grade? I’m going with an A-. This was an engaging story that deals with a lot of difficult issues in a way that feels both sensitive and appropriate for the time in which the story is set. I hated to put the book down.
Lisa: I’m going with a solid A- as well. I’d love to have given it a straight A for all of the reasons we’ve discussed, but couldn’t because of the heavy-handedness of what happened in Millie’s plot. But otherwise I, too, kept the book close by my side for the few hours it took me to devour it!