The Starlet and the Spy
“I go to work thinking of death” begins Ji-min Lee’s The Starlet and the Spy a sentence that sets the pace for a very readable historical novel that takes a wholly different but understandably downbeat look at Marilyn Monroe’s iconic 1954 visit to troops serving in the Korean War. From its planning stages to Monroe’s last day in the country, we mainly see things through the eyes of Marilyn’s translator, the understandably grim-minded Miss Alice J. Kim.
Living months past Armistice in a haze of depression, Alice is a survivor of the conflict, and her own selfish choices led to a horrifying act for which she can’t forgive herself. To save herself, mentally and physically, Alice has anglicized her name, exchanged her tempestuous ways for controlled ones, shed her hopes of becoming an artist, and tried to forget about her heartbreaking pre-war romance with a married man. She’s emotionally closed off from even those she knew intimately in the refugee camp and who now work with or live with her, viewing the ugly racism and sarcasm she meets elsewhere with head-on, dry-eyed clarity. Yet she can’t stop herself from looking for the nine-year-old she fled Hungnam with, the orphan she was torn from after she lost control of her mind at the camp.
When Alice is selected to accompany Marilyn on her four-day trip to see the troops, she’s not particularly excited by the mission, considering it just another part of work.
But when Alice meets Marilyn – still on her Japanese honeymoon, still dewy, fresh and in love with Joe DiMaggio yet living a life away from him – the two women strike up a tentative friendship that begins to blossom. Also blossoming is Alice’s future – when meets her old English teacher and lover, Joseph, on the streets while accompanying Marilyn, she’s sucked back into the past. Joseph turns out to have a secret past – a past that requires Alice to pitch in and help out. A pull even more strong than Joseph’s brings her back into contact with a man she long thought dead, and she’s shocked when he tells her he wants a future with her. As Alice is tortured by her memories of her old affair and how she terminated it, she contemplates suicide – until she’s swept up in a spy plot that will cause her to pick between her loyalties, between death and life, between the example of Marilyn’s grace and beauty and the horrible memories from which she suffers.
The Starlet and the Spy is an incredibly depressing read. Though there are some light points, this is a deep, dark novel filled with ugly war crimes and espionage, and it mostly focuses on Alice’s self-recrimination and blame – all of which turn out to be for naught when she realizes that the debt she yearns to pay has already been cancelled.
Alice is a haunting figure. In her trauma, she has transformed her light-hearted joie de vivre into something almost sharp and weaponized. Her trauma and anger are so deeply rooted that I honestly didn’t buy her eventual turn-around.
Those coming for the Marilyn part of the story will be disappointed; she’s a peripheral character, and though she’s well-written and witty, and her friendship with Alice a welcome respite from the marathon run through Alice’s trauma, she doesn’t pull center focus in the novel at all. So, too, is the spy tale very lightly developed. What we’re here for is the strained drama of Alice’s affairs and the war story she must tell. Those parts of the book are very impactful but robbed of their immediacy by being told mostly in flashback and letter format.
There are some sad stories in this book, but they’re sad stories told with wit and sharpness. I had to downgrade The Starlet and the Spy because of its misleading blurb and for its disappointingly quick and weightless conclusion, yet it is a compelling read well worth seeking out.
Note: This book includes on-page depiction of attempted suicide, rape, child rape, starvation, mass murder and forcible impregnation.