While Anthony Marra has had a wonderfully successful career prior to Mercury Pictures Presents, this was the first book of his that I have read. It is immediately apparent that Marra is a writer with a unique knack for building vibrant environments of historical geography and cultural characterization that I can only compare to the Russian greats. The scenery and scope of Mercury pictures make a character of Italy and the early Hollywood era and its indie studios fighting for dominance, but the bit players in the story are just as important to the bigwigs, and Marra convincingly weaves the fabric of a bygone time and place that never existed to craft a gorgeous story.
In this story, Maria Lagana and her mother move to the United States from Rome when her father is arrested for a series of events that we are not entirely sure he is responsible for. After all, “every parent is a failed dictator.” When she arrives, she is thrust into working for a struggling independent movie studio filled with some memorable characters that truly capture the cultural mélange of the early twentieth century. Asian actors are typecast in roles opposite white actors playing Asians, white actors are pulled into propaganda films churned out by the handful while alarming war footage remains on the shelf because it doesn’t seem realistically warlike, and the demons of a young girl’s family’s past in Rome come back to haunt her and forces her to confront the monstrosity of existing as an outsider who cannot help but navigate her way to doing her best to heal and provide some kind of restitution for everyone involved.
While Maria is the main character, there are many small moments with some we never see again that contribute to the gorgeous tapestry of the novel. Artie Feldman, a man who “read Il Duce’s autobiography for parenting tips,” becomes a secondary character with reliable wit and comedy to help steer Maria’s career and choices all while poorly managing the film studio. Eventually, World War II begins to encroach on the studio, its work, and the actors and support staff paid to create some of the less popular films of the time but some of the most significant American propaganda, and we learn quickly that “it’s better to succeed as a villain than fail as a hero” both on and off the silver screen.
One particular line in the book really stood out to me that beautifully reflects the themes of how history can reverberate in a lifetime. “Our children aren’t whole. They’re just broken in more delicate ways by finer instruments…” to which another character replies, “being broken delicately is what I call whole.” This book is about the ways in which intergenerational actions can span the lives of people and the distances between communities, and it is a beautiful portrait of a time and a place that only existed for a short while. Marra’s stunning camera work in this book is unmistakably fine, and it was an absolute pleasure to read – perfect for fans of old Hollywood, World War II, and intergenerational family stories with a vibrant historical atmosphere.