The Queen of Tuesday
Darin Strauss came up with The Queen of Tuesday by asking himself one question – what if his philandering insurance salesman grandfather, Isidore- Iz – Strauss had met actress and sitcom queen Lucille Ball at a benefit thrown by Donald Trump’s father – which they both actually attended – and started a torrid affair. Well. There have been weirder things around which to base historical fiction. And Strauss does get some details of Ball’s spirit and toughness right.
But he makes an incredible number of factual mistakes, transplanting situations and important moments in Ball’s life around to make them make better dramatic sense for his novel. And the end result is something that neuters the narrative. It feels almost like a bridge too far, something that should’ve been kept in the drawer of his family home or posted to Archive of Our Own instead of bound up and pushed by a major publishing company.
How Iz and Lucy end up together is a matter of their both being imperfectly mated to their spouses. Harriet – who was in fact Strauss’ grandmother – and he does a terrible job trying to relate to her here – is written as committing the grand crime of being bland: “Circumspect, with low wattage intelligence” observes Iz, fresh from Lucille’s bed. Desi Arnaz – as he was in life – is a flirty philanderer. By all reports, his infidelities tore at Ball, with whom he had a passionate but somewhat abusive relationship, and she did indeed have several affairs in response to his. They were nearly divorced once before their marriage dissolved in the ‘60s.
But in the book, Arnaz is all jealous swagger when Iz looks at Lucy sideways; Iz is different, a special threat. Iz gets the references Lucy makes which Desi doesn’t, and thus – badinage so good that she’s totally thinking about how they screwed while filming Lucy and Ethel Want to Go to a Nightclub, I Love Lucy’s first televised episode. Sure. Cue pages of Iz nervously worshiping Lucy from afar and trying to scare up the courage to call her while Lucy thinks of him and his hands and his tongue and his dick at inopportune times.
As I said, The Queen of Tuesday reads like self-insert fanfiction at several points. Normally this would be no insult, but for Strauss to posit that his grandfather – who abandoned his grandmother in order to take up life with his girlfriend – would be this sort of romantic soulmate for Ball is ludicrous. Iz is portrayed as a gentle, loving saint compared to Arnaz, and he may have been this in real life, but in fiction it comes off as utter twaddle: “I’m so much better for you, baby!” the narrative screams, shoving its Iz and Lucy Barbie dolls together again and again. Iz abandoned his wife to slowly lose her mind alone, allowing her to become an alcoholic agoraphobic while he fucked his friend for years, but he totally wouldn’t have cheated on Lucy! And this happened in real life! And it’s in the book, so we can’t POSSIBLY IGNORE THE FACT. It’s clear that this novel is a grandson’s sighing wish fulfillment desires for a beloved grandfather, and that’s where it trips over its two left feet.
The Queen of Tuesday also makes one of the worst and most typical of Guys Write Romance mistakes and has Lucille terminally caught up on Iz and sex with Iz to the point where no other man but Desi can compare. To all gentlemen out there reading this review – let me assure you that women in general do not spend their lives mooning over that one guy who gave us mediocre head in the back of a car a couple of years ago. We move on with our lives, just like you do.
The author does disappear into his own navel (and other physical recesses) in other matters, especially while delving into silly thinky-thought dialogue that comes off as ripely overwritten. Example: “An actress is a kind of Baskin-Robbins Franchise of a smile,” he has Ball observe which… is certainly a sentence.
And that brings us to the fact that Strauss thought it would be a swell idea to transport Arnaz’ impassioned declaration that “the only thing that’s red about Lucy is her hair, and even that isn’t real” to an audience at an I Love Lucy taping made at the height of the HUAC investigation into Ball’s political ties. It was a night that could’ve made or broken her career – and the audience’s impassioned shouts in Ball’s favor confirmed that, red or no, she was America’s Lucy. HOW in the universe does one reject a scene so impassioned, so incredible, and neuter it of all drama just so we can have more Iz-as-Lucy’s-slampiece-thinking? The universe has served the writer with mucho drama – REAL drama – and yet he decides to give us middle-aged-lovers in bed. Sigh. By the time we get to the fictional notion that Desi Arnaz Jr. (the spitting image of his father) might be the biological child of Iz, I was too mentally checked out to laugh at the fact that Strauss had – perhaps unintentionally – visited the earlier, tabloid-clogging who’s-the-daddy drama surrounding Sean Astin’s birth, which featured Patty Duke being unable to tell who the actor’s bio dad was (the possible papas were Arnaz Jr., John Astin and Michael Tell, with Tell eventually proving to be Astin’s bio father via DNA testing years later).
Facts are, unfortunately, stubborn little things that stick out in the narrative like little quills. When Strauss claims the Ball in his novel bears no resemblance to the real Ball, one is left to wonder why he wrote historical fiction about her in the first place. The Queen of Tuesday manages to get just the right things wrong, and thus doesn’t earn my approval. Tune it out and pick up the material Strauss used to research the novel, particularly the excellent Ball of Fire. Even better, read Lucy’s autobiography, published after her death. There’s more of the real her in that book, even though it cuts off halfway through her life.