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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sister Hollywood


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To purchase Sister Hollywood

Title: Sister Hollywood
Author: C.K.Stead
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989
Length: 220 pages
Availability: Sister Hollywood - US
Sister Hollywood - UK
Sister Hollywood - Canada
Sister Hollywood - India
Sister Hollywood - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine Hollywood novel, despite occasionally overextending itself

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 8/6/1990 .
The Times . 22/6/1989 Stuart Evans
TLS . 11/8/1989 Toby Moore

  From the Reviews:
  • "Although the underdeveloped characters' motives and confusions are never sorted out, Stead's depiction of the movie industry in its golden age and the McCarthy era, as well as the real Hollywood beneath the glitter, is solid and thoughtful." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The novel is rich in character; humorous, sardonic, compassionate. It is elegantly written and entertaining." - Stuart Evans, The Times

  • "Sister Hollywood is nothing if not a considerable feat of construction. (...) Stead has a gift for detailing the intimacies, nicknames and irrationalities which make up ordinary family life. His prose is disciplined, almost sparse, and he has clearly concentrated his efforts on weaving the threads of film, fantasy and family together." - Toby Moore, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Sister Hollywood focuses on two siblings from a larger New Zealand family, their stories told in not-quite-alternating chapters. In about half the chapters Bill Harper narrates his own story, beginning with his childhood; he doesn't remember quite when it happened, but the disappearance of one of his older sisters, Edie, when he was barely a teen, around the end of the Second World War, became a defining event for his family. Seven years his senior, Edie vanished when she was about nineteen -- and thus soon expected to leave the fold anyway -- but she didn't just transition out of the family into a life of her own. She broke completely with her entire family, apparently essentially overnight, giving no indication of what her plans were. When the family still believed: "She was probably not even in New Zealand (and sometimes I heard them talking about Sydney)" they weren't even close.
       Edie married an Australian actor -- even changing her name twice over, taking not only his family-(stage-)name, but changing her given name, too, becoming 'Arlene Tamworth' -- and they set off to Hollywood for him to make it big in pictures.
       Some half of the chapters in the novel recount Arlene's Hollywood years, though the times do not exactly overlap as the account of her life and Bill's account of his unfold side by side.
       Edie's disappearance put a great deal pressure on her parents' already difficult marriage; her mother, in particular, did not take it well. Worse comes when the family goes to the movies and sees the lost daughter in a small role on the big screen -- a brief, uncredited appearance that is nevertheless unmistakably her (as happens more than once). While Arlene has a friend to whom she has confided occasionally send her news as to how the family is doing, the family know nothing of what became of Edie (indeed, not even that she became 'Arlene' ...).
       Beginning with the movie-obsessed grand-mother, the family living in distant New Zealand see Hollywood as some great fantasy-land:

We thought of Hollywood as the place of ultimate success, a bit like Heaven, only a lot better.
       On site, Arlene discovers otherwise -- but then from the start she's a more down-to-earth and realistic gal: coming to Hollywood is her husband Rocky's dream and ambition. They settle in reasonably well -- making friends with the Bogarts, for example -- but Rocky has the damnedest time breaking into pictures. His drinking habits -- which get worse as the jobs keep not coming -- also don't help.
       Arlene, on the other hand, lucks into a secretarial job that leads her into screenwriting (and the occasionall filler screen-appearance that then so unsettles everyone back home) and almost effortlessly becomes quite successful. Arlene does, for the most part try to please the men in her life: she's supportive of her husband, does as she's told by her boss, and is fairly understanding of her lover -- though she does stand up to each when too much gets to be too much. She's honest and straightforward: it suits and works for her and while her success is hardly effortless, it's also not undeserved, her talent coming through. The men, meanwhile, all eventually get left more or less by the wayside.
       In describing her steady success Stead paints a nice picture of Hollywood just as its glory days began to fade. The post-war record audiences (in 1947 4.7 billion movie tickets were sold in the US; compare that to less than 1.3 billion in 2011) were beginning their decline, TV was rising as a competitive medium -- and, in particular, the chilling effect of the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings (which Stead has Arlene see first-hand) were stifling creativity. Arlene's perspective -- baffled and outraged by the witch-hunts, but without her own political agenda -- helps avoid most of the pitfalls of treatments of that period (though Stead does give Bertolt Brecht a (deservedly) very sympathetic turn). Preserving Arlene's status as somewhat of an outsider -- she pursues American citizenship, but in many ways never becomes Americanized -- makes it easier for Stead to portray Hollywood realistically from his own distance (though he really is quite good with even a great deal of the 'insider' details of filmmaking).
       Bill's perspective -- from the opposite ends of the earth, after all -- allows for even more distance. For the longest time, he preserves that distance, too: when he finally gets to Los Angeles as an adult he says: "I never thought of going to Hollywood, though bus tours were offered. I avoided Disneyland"; he realizes Edie is probably somewhere close, but also that:
She inhabited a Hollywood of the mind.
       Indeed, where Rocky is crushed by the reality of it, Arlene is able to maneuver so seemingly easily through it by not believing in some false abstraction of Hollywood.
       As noted early on already:
The real Hollywood was not a place; it was a state of mind.
       By not forcing it, Arlene manages to establish herself in it. Rocky -- who, except for his weakness for booze, isn't a bad guy at all -- can't survive when the real Hollywood does not meet his expectations.
       Sister Hollywood isn't just a tale of Hollywood. It's also a family story, Bill's narrative describing the slow collapse (nudged on by Edie's vanishing-act -- and those odd, brief, celluloid appearances, that prove more mystifying than reassuring about her fate) of a family. And there's an autobiographical element as well, Bill eventually getting a PhD and publishing his first book, The Keatsian Poetic -- echoes of academic Stead's own The New Poetic .....
       Stead tries to cover a great deal, and so some of the situations seem underdeveloped; much is passed over very quickly (all the more noticeably so given the contrast of what Stead lingers over), and he also seems to find it a bit difficult to tie it all together in the end, leaving much of the later parts of Bill and Arlene's lives presented in rather summary form.
       Stead does do a fine job in presenting much of his central character and her two sides:
     There was a woman called Edie Harper and there was a woman called Arlene Tamworth and they were the same, and different. One was fading, the other becoming more distinct.
       Yet he also gives the reader little insight into the Edie Harper who made that momentous decision when she was nineteen or so. The only witness, Bill, was too young to really notice much of what was going on in the household leading up to it, and given how Arlene's Hollywood-journey is then fairly closely recounted, it's odd that we learn so little about how she wound up with Rocky and why she felt she had to cut all ties with her family so completely, and in one fell swoop (and never made any effort at re-connecting).
       Nevertheless, Stead presents his stories well, and he has some good stories to tell. Sister Hollywood isn't a complete success, but it's an enjoyable and satisfying read by a talented novelist.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 September 2012

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Reviews: C.K.Stead: Other books by C.K.Stead under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       New Zealand writer Christian Karlson Stead was born in 1932. He taught at the University of Auckland and has written many works of fiction, poetry, and criticism.

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