It is 1917, and Liana Wycliffe is a second-rate stage actress. She belongs to a theater company that is in Paris during World War I, entertaining the troops with light comedy. There she meets a handsome American expatriate fighter pilot, known to her only as Ace. They spend a short, idyllic time together, discussing their passion for motion pictures. They fall in love, and Liana wants to share her body with her beloved. Ace is horrified to discover that Liana wants to have sex with him. He’d thought she was special, but now he knows that she’s just a tramp, and he dumps her with a rude note. But not before having sex with her, because Ace is a hypocrite as well as a prude.
1920. Liana is now a struggling Hollywood actress. The camera loves her, but she doesn’t get many parts because she’s difficult to work with and she hates virginal victim roles, which are pretty much bread-and-butter in Hollywood. Then she hears of a controversial big-budget picture to be set in Tahiti, and she just knows that she’s perfect for the part of the free-spirited Tahitian heroine. But she discovers that the movie, Tehani of the South Seas, is to be directed by none other than her old buddy Ace, whose real name turns out to be Spencer Sloane. Sloane knows that she’s perfect for the part. He attempts to bribe, blackmail, and seduce her into taking it. I won’t tell you how this all shakes out, but eventually she agrees, and they depart for filming in Tahiti. However, Liana is dismayed when she learns more about the movie. The heroine, Tehani, is not, as Liana first imagined, a sensual woman, free of the hang-ups of Christian society. Sloane wants Tehani to be a tragic symbol of the innocence and purity of the islands, raped by Western culture. In other words, yet another virginal victim role. Liana scornfully nicknames the movie Tehani of Sunnybrook Farm.
The first thing I really liked about this book is the characterization. The protagonists are challenging, and not everyone will get along with them, but they both come across as genuine, complex people. Liana is a party girl. She likes to drink, dance, and have sex. This stems in part from her own natural passion and exuberance, and is in part a reaction to the humiliation she suffered at Sloane’s hands. She’s spunky, in the sense that she will dash off into danger without telling anyone where she’s going. Sometimes she is extremely irresponsible. Her fun-loving exterior hides a great deal of vulnerability. She does things that she’s ashamed of. But she’s very honest with herself. She also strikes me as exactly the sort of woman who would succeed in Hollywood: ambitious, outspoken, and entirely aware of the power of her beauty and sexuality. She’s not, like, your best girlfriend (at least, she’s nothing like my best girlfriend), and in many respects she is larger-than-life; nevertheless, she seemed sympathetic and real.
My favorite part of this book comes when a friend of Sloane’s is trying to talk Liana into taking the part of Tehani, saying that the movie might help Sloane deal with his issues with women. Liana says, “Get this straight. I have absolutely no interest in helping him work out his problems with women.” You tell him, honey.
Sloane is an alpha jerk, but he’s a jerk in a way that’s entirely believable for 1920. To him, women are either Madonnas or whores, and he slots Liana into the latter category, in spite of the fact that he’s in love with her and respects her abilities as an actress. Readers might very well not enjoy Sloane’s company. I didn’t like him, and I didn’t understand why Liana fell in love with him, but I found his dilemma interesting.
Another thing I enjoyed was the book’s setting. I know next to nothing about the silent film industry, California in the 1920s, or Tahiti, but I admire the author’s skill in bringing those settings to life. There’s an especially outrageous sequence that features Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille that tickled me, and would probably have been even funnier if you know anything about Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille.
The love scenes in this book are very explicit, and they contain some four-letter words that may bother readers. Also, some of the sex scenes contain elements of dominance and humiliation, which may be a turn-off. I thought these scenes were effective (except for the lapses into flowery purple prose), and the author did a good job of illustrating the characters’ personalities through the way they make love.
There are also all sorts of things I didn’t like about Silent Surrender. The purple prose is intrusive. Occasional strange word choices jarred me. There’s way too much detail about Liana’s parents (hero and heroine of The Last Highwayman), which Liana and Sloane find more relevant than I did. More gravely, the way Sloane converts from alpha jerk into complaisant beta in about five seconds seemed highly unlikely. I didn’t like alpha-Sloane very much, but I believed in him, and I just didn’t buy his quick reformation.
And especially, I intensely disliked the last 100 pages of this book. By about page 270, the love story of this novel is resolved, and Liana and Sloane are ready for their happily ever after. That’s when the suspense subplot takes over completely, and we spend the next 100 pages in a series of adventures and derring-do, all of it amazingly tedious. I like adventure and derring-do, but for this section of the book all that good characterization and emotional tension went straight out the window. All of Liana’s vulnerability is gone – she turns into someone who always knows just what to do and what to say, and always comes up with a clever plan. She makes page-long discourses about the meaning of life and love, and she never once for a single instant feels fear or indecision – even when she’s about to be shot. Sloane is along for the ride, letting Liana do whatever she wants and following wherever she leads. It took me one day to read the first 270 pages of this book, and about a week to get through that last section. There’s lots of action and disguises and so on, but without meaningful characters, it’s completely boring.
I’ve never read anything quite like Silent Surrender (the Alice Duncan book Her Leading Man also features a silent movie actress in a relationship with her director, but the two books could scarcely be more different). This is bound to be one of those books you either love or hate. I loved parts and hated other parts; in the end I’m glad I read it, but I don’t feel confident about giving it a recommendation. Silent Surrender is not perfectly successful, but it’s memorable enough that I’ll give O’Neal another try.