I’m interested in how we survive by the labor of our own hands, and who we choose to love. Those are my two themes—they’re in every book I write.
Adriana Trigiani’s latest novel is an unabashedly romantic story of Hollywood’s golden age, peopled with the stars of yesteryear — Spencer Tracy, David Niven, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Hattie McDaniel — and Clark Gable and Loretta Young. Trigiani paints a romantic picture of Gable and Young as star-crossed lovers, kept apart by the strict moral codes and sexist double standard of the times.
Their problems were not of the heart, or their intentions, but of the practical world, which was defined by the wily and improbable laws enforced by the studios that employed them, and by the public, whose ticket dollars gave them the final say. Gable and Young were indentured to the stardom that made their lifestyle possible.
Fans of old movies and old-fashioned, multi-generational sagas will love All the Stars in the Heavens. It’s the kind of novels described in blurbs as “sweeping” — an overused word that is, nonetheless, apt when applied to this Hollywood epic. If the book were a movie it would be called a “biopic”. We first meet Loretta Young as a child actress, working to help her single mother pay the bills, and follow her as she becomes a leading lady in Hollywood, falling in love with the wrong men, and eventually a grandmother, watching herself and Clark Gable on a VHS tape of The Call of the Wild.
Warning to readers: don’t Google “Loretta Young”, “Clark Gable” — or anything else in the book that piques your curiosity. I made the mistake of doing that and I not only ruined the story for myself, but came across some recent information (so recent that Trigiani wouldn’t have known about it while writing the book) that cast doubt on one of the central plot elements. Granted, All the Stars in the Heavens is fiction, but it’s clear Trigiani tried to keep her story within the basic outline of Young’s life.
The most interesting character in the book is one Trigiani invented — Alda Ducci, Young’s secretary and dear friend. An Italian immigrant, Alda came to the Young household after being asked to leave the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, where she had been training to become a nun. The Mother Superior at the convent says, “‘I’m told this a fine Catholic family, very devout. You would be a secretary to one of the daughters. She works in pictures. Her name is Loretta Young.'” I was reminded of The Sound of Music, when Maria leaves the Abbey and falls in love with Captain von Trapp. (Remember the Baroness: “And somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.”)
Not only does Alda form a deep and abiding friendship with her employer, she falls in love with Luca Chetta, a scene painter on the set of The Call of the Wild. Both the friendship with Loretta and the relationship with Luca happen improbably fast. Almost immediately after meeting Alda, Luca says, “‘I’m already crazy about you . . . You got a big, sad heart. And big, beautiful eyes. I want to understand why you’re sad. And I want to look into those eyes of yours forever.'” Alda responds: “‘You sound like a movie script.'”
The dialogue in All the Stars in the Heavens does sound like a movie script — a movie script from another era. It’s sometimes corny, but often the repartee is witty and flirtatious. Trigiani knows how to set a scene too, from the cold and isolated area of northern Washington where The Call of the Wild was filmed to the ancient and crowded neighborhood in Padua, Italy where Alda’s family lives.
Would I recommend All the Stars in the Heaven? For me, it was a welcome break from serious nonfiction, as well as a nostalgic trip to a bygone era. It’s fun reading, and you’ll learn a little something about old Hollywood. Like many of the movies the book references, All the Stars in the Heavens is clever, entertaining, and doesn’t probe too deeply. Trigiani is a terrific storyteller, and she has great material to work with in this book — which is her first biographical novel.
It’s not surprising that Trigiani chose to write about the movie business. A theater major in college, she spent 15 years as a playwright, comedy troupe actress, TV writer/producer (writing several episodes for the Cosby Show), and documentary filmmaker before turning to fiction writing. Her first novel, Big Stone Gap, the first in a series set in her Virginia hometown, started out as a screenplay. The movie version (written and directed by Trigiani and starring Ashley Judd) was just released last month. The reviews have been middling; the Washington Post’s was typical, concluding that “In a lot of ways this is a Chicken Soup for the Soul sort of movie. But sometimes, especially when the air’s starting to turn brisk, that’s exactly what you need.”
And every once in a while, what you need is a Hollywood novel that gives you a glimpse of a glamorous world that no longer exists. I also recommend A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott (the filming of Gone With the Wind) and, if you’d prefer something more literary, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (the making of Cleopatra).
Stories are people. I’m a story, you’re a story . . . your father is a story. Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, our stories join into one, and for a while, we’re less alone.
Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins
Click here for my review of Adriana Trigiani’s 2014 release, The Supreme Macaroni Company.