Monday, July 29, 2019

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

I had such high hopes for this book at the start.  The Chelsea Girls gets off to a very fast-paced start as Hazel, a perennial Broadway understudy lands in Italy to join the USO Tour, and she is catapulted immediately onto the stage.  The action doesn't let up as Hazel and her new friend Maxine find themselves coming to the aid of a German boy suspected of being a spy.  Hazel and Maxine's days with the USO tour are rendered with the sort of alternating mystique and heartbreak that you might expect of adventures in a new place, but one that is broken by war.

However, when the war ends and the two return to the states - Maxine to a burgeoning career in Hollywood and Hazel to New York City and her mother's oppressive disappointment, the story seems to lose some of its spark.  The Chelsea Hotel and its denizens are well-wrought but Hazel's entrance onto the scene and her "inspired" career in writing and directing is too easily come by to the point of feeling contrived.

The two friends reunite to stage Hazel's Broadway debut, but there are forces at work that stand to rob Hazel of her fifteen minutes of fame.  The communist hunting House Un-American Activities Committee puts Hazel in a different kind of spotlight, and leading lady Maxine's behavior becomes more and more bizarre until everything comes to a head on opening night.  Unfortunately, both female main characters seem to grow more wooden instead of less as the story progresses.  Hazel's responses to her circumstances seem to be ill-placed, not occurring when would seem natural but being delayed and then awkwardly inserted for dramatic effect.

Despite its failings, though, The Chelsea Girls successfully tackles an era of history that is often glossed over.  Davis captures the paranoia running rampant in politics during the McCarthy era, the fear that an offhand remark could ruin a life, and the witch trial-esque interrogations where the only option seemed to be to name names or be taken to be a communist yourself.  Between that and a well timed twist that I definitely wasn't expecting, I'd still recommend this book.

(Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for review consideration.)