Desert Isle Keeper
The Girls in the Picture
I’m a big fan of books set in the early days of Hollywood, so Melanie Benjamin’s The Girls In the Picture seemed like the perfect book for me to review. It’s the story of the friendship between two of Hollywood’s first leading ladies, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Frances Marion isn’t interested in becoming an actress, but she’s still eager to leave her mark on the movie business. To this end, she contrives a meeting with America’s Sweetheart – Mary Pickford. Mary has taken America by storm, delighting audiences with her golden curls, bright smile, and indomitable spirit, and Frances is sure Mary is just the person to provide her entry into the secret echelons of Hollywood.
From the moment Mary lays eyes on Frances, she is struck by the other woman’s confidence and poise. She thinks Frances would do wonderfully as an actress, but Frances swears up and down that’s not what she’s looking to do. She explains to Mary that she’d actually love to write the scenes the actors and actresses act out, and she expresses a special interest in writing scenes for Mary. Mary is delighted by this idea, and immediately pulls strings to get Frances hired on as a scenarist.
As time goes by, Frances and Mary become intimate friends as well as colleagues. Frances is eager to help Mary experience the childhood of which she was robbed by Hollywood, and Mary wants to teach Frances the ins and outs of Hollywood life. They’re bonded by their mutual desire to make names for themselves in the male-dominated film industry, and as the years pass, their friendship will be tested by struggles and triumphs both personal and professional.
The story is told in alternating chapters from both Mary’s and Frances’s point of view, giving readers a bird’s-eye view into the lives of these two strong, independent women. Mary and her husband, esteemed actor Douglas Fairbanks, start a movie studio of their own, making Mary the first woman ever to hold such power in Hollywood. For her part, Frances fights her way to the top of her field as a screenwriter at a time when women’s contributions were constantly underestimated and belittled.
As I read, I found myself struck by the amount of research that must have gone into the writing of this book. The author’s attention to detail is to be applauded. She manages to breathe life into her characters, as well as to Hollywood itself, making me feel as though I’d traveled back in time. I love novels that evoke this feeling, but not many actually manage to pull it off.
I found it difficult to warm up to Mary, though. She was tenacious in an era when women weren’t supposed to be, and while that is an admirable quality as it relates to her career, I found it less admirable in her personal life. She valued her acting career above all else, including those she claimed to care for, and never hesitated to stomp on the interests of others if she thought it could get her what she wanted. Even Frances, who was supposed to be her very best friend, was not immune to this treatment, and I often found myself wishing Frances would kick Mary to the curb for her bad behavior.
Frances, on the other hand, was a true joy to get to know. She worked hard for her success, but never comes off as selfish or thoughtless. I loved watching her rise from her humble beginnings and become a true powerhouse while not sacrificing her personal values. She manages to marry and have a family without having to give up her career, even though many of her business associates expected her to fade into obscurity once her children were born. In short, she’s exactly the sort of heroine I’m delighted to roor for.
This is a novel that unflinchingly explores the complexities of female friendship. The relationship between Frances and Mary goes through a number of changes over the years, but is still strong and vibrant at the novel’s end. Anyone who has had a close female friend can probably relate to the jealousies, insecurities, shared joys, and boundless loyalty shared by our heroines. True, Mary doesn’t always treat Frances well, but underneath it all lurks a deep love and unwavering regard that nothing can alter. There’s a scene near the end of the book that had me in tears, so powerful and visceral were the emotions shared by Mary and Frances.
The Girls In the Picture is a novel I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with strong heroines who lead unconventional lives. It’s entertaining, thought-provoking, and just plain fun to read.