“Here’s looking at you, kid!”
“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“After all, tomorrow is another day!”
Don’t you love old Hollywood? The stories, the witty writing, the glamour? I’ve always enjoyed it, though I confess I haven’t seen as much early Hollywood work as I’d like.
One person I’ve always been fascinated by, but somehow knew little about, is actress Hedy Lamarr. She starred in many movies from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, alongside such leading men as Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable. But not just a pretty face, the intelligent Lamarr had a complex backstory and is now well known as not just an actress, but also as a scientist and inventor.
So, when I heard about a new historical fiction book covering the life of Hedy Lamarr, I thought it sounded intriguing! A woman with an accomplished acting career, who also invented an amazing technology and opposed the Nazis in her free time? Sign me up!
Today, I’m reviewing The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict. If you follow book blogs and lists, you’ve likely heard of this title… it’s been getting a lot of buzz in the last month or so! Here’s a description of this book:
She possessed a stunning beauty. She also possessed a stunning mind. Could the world handle both?
Her beauty almost certainly saved her from the rising Nazi party and led to marriage with an Austrian arms dealer. Underestimated in everything else, she overheard the Third Reich’s plans while at her husband’s side, understanding more than anyone would guess. She devised a plan to flee in disguise from their castle, and the whirlwind escape landed her in Hollywood. She became Hedy Lamarr, screen star.
But she kept a secret more shocking than her heritage or her marriage: she was a scientist. And she knew a few secrets about the enemy. She had an idea that might help the country fight the Nazis…if anyone would listen to her.
A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece.
So did this title live up to the hype for me? (Note: please be aware there may be spoilers past this point!)
The novel opens with a young Hedy on stage, catching the attention of Fritz Mandl, a well connected power broker and munitions dealer in 1930’s Vienna. As he pursues her, Hedy and her parents realize that in a precarious political climate, the association with this man may keep them safe, so she agrees to marry him.
In part, it does. But Hedy’s new husband quickly turns from Prince Charming to the Dark Lord. Between shady political dealings, his controlling nature, and the wrath directed against Hedy for the slightest perceived misstep (the novel does deal, although not in graphic detail, with spousal abuse), Hedy realizes her mistake and makes plans to leave. Meanwhile, she bides her time, spending her imprisoned hours studying and learning about anything she can get her hands on.
After a false start or two, and learning much more than she bargained for about Hitler, Mussolini, and the horrifying politics of that time and place, Hedy makes it out and escapes, via England, to America. En route she meets a Hollywood mogul and negotiates her way to Hollywood stardom.
Once word starts coming of how bad things have gotten in Europe, Hedy is overcome with guilt that she got away, and that she was neither able to help her family nor to share the details she knew. So she dedicates herself to a project, designing a scientific development to overcome issues with torpedo technology, and plans to share info with the US government to help them defeat the Nazis.
After finishing, my thoughts are that I liked this book… but I didn’t *love* it.
I really wanted to. The subject is fascinating, and the many different lives Lamarr lived throughout her time were amazing! I really enjoyed the first part of the novel, where Hedy met and married Fritz, the transitions through their married life, and her escape. And the descriptions of old Hollywood were fun.
Once World War II began in earnest and Hedy’s focus shifted, I found the novel less compelling. Hedy was obviously very intelligent, and there were references to her studying and to her conversations with her father on many subjects. But it was a bit of a stretch that those scenarios were enough to provide a base for the fact that she nearly single-handedly came up with such brilliant new technology. Also, it was clear that Hedy had some survivor’s guilt, but the constant self-berating for not stepping up to contribute to the Nazis’ defeat… well, that part was a little overdone in my opinion. It seemed to demand too much of the book’s focus to the exclusion of other things (like the adoption of her son and subsequent custody battle, her marriages, even how her mother finally managed to get visas into other countries).
The idea that Hedy (alongside her friend George) came up with this military technology is awesome, but I’m sure that the implication of the military rejecting the invention largely on the basis that it was developed by a woman is far from the whole story. And honestly, I could have done with less in-depth detail on the technical aspects of her designs. I’m sure some people found the explanations fascinating, but I felt like they distracted me from the flow of the story, and I ended up skimming over them.
I could have overlooked a lot of this, but then the book ended so abruptly. It left me wanting more, and not in a good way. I guess I was just looking for something different in this title. Still, I’m giving it three solid stars for the depiction of a legend.
The author is well respected and it’s obvious she put in a lot of research for this book…. I see from other reviews that not everyone had the same issues with it that I did, so if you’re a historical fiction fan, or interested in Hedy Lamarr, it’s definitely worth picking up to explore for yourself!
Get The Only Woman in the Room at:
So, what do you think? Have you read this one? Did it make you want to learn more about Hedy Lamarr? Maybe check out a couple of her movies?
This was my fourth book of 2019 so far, and I’m really pleased with the variety of what I’ve read… hoping to keep that up! Next on my list, I have a couple cozy mysteries, a Kate Morton title, and a couple of suspense novels. Looking forward to telling you more about them! Hope your 2019 book list is off to a great start… happy reading!!
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My thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for a complimentary digital review copy of this title. All opinions are my own.