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Book Review: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

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The Only Woman in the Room is the fictionalized account of a remarkable woman, Hedwig Kiesler.  Set in pre-WWII Austria, this daughter of a Jewish family has begun a career as a stage actress, known for her beauty and talent.  Forced into marriage with a notorious arms dealer, as the trophy wife she is privy to many dinner parties and clandestine meetings involving the Nazis and other political and military figures.  But her glamour masks a formidable intellect and she absorbs a great deal more than those who dismiss her as an airhead realize.

This is the backstory of the famous Hollywood icon, Hedy Lamarr, who later goes on to display her intellectual abilities in the scientific field.  She and her business partner are among the earliest to work on spread spectrum technology to develop radio guidance systems for torpedoes.  This glamorous figure had more than one dimension it seems.  While starring with the likes of Clark Gable and Cary Grant, her scientific work was drawing the support of figures such as Howard Hughes for this precursor to the wireless communication we use today. She had not been recognized until recently for these and other scientific accomplishments.

The Only Woman in the Room is somewhat of a hybrid Romance-Historical Fiction-Biography.  It recounts Lamarr’s journey from Austria to Hollywood, mostly concentrating on her early adult life, unhappy marriage to her controlling and abusive husband and the strange existence of having to be in a nest of vipers, as the accommodating hostess to her husband’s unsavory business associates.  The stunning and talented Hedy uses her position in society to actively hide her Jewish roots. The emphasis often is on her beauty, including a lot of descriptions of hair, make-up and clothes.  We are treated to her inner thoughts as she navigates her situation as well as her sometimes fraught familial ties.  

Despite the fascinating story of Hedy Lamarr, she comes across as somewhat of a lightweight in this telling.  Her character is rather watered down.  The story lacks more expansive detail and texture, which would have given it, and the characters, more depth and richness.  Hedy Lamarr is a brilliant, fascinating and strong female figure, but her characterization here is in contrast to her accomplishments.  The emphasis in this book is not on the truly remarkable elements of her story.  It becomes difficult to make the leap from early Hedy to Hedy the scientist.  If you didn’t know it was based on a true story you might think it an unlikely plot, based on the characters as drawn. The story of her scientific work is given a bit of a short shrift, especially for anyone who likes more detailed and involved historical fiction. The author appears to rush events at the end, when expanding upon them would have fully fleshed out the picture of this fascinating woman.

Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, I did enjoy the book. I had a vague knowledge of Hedy Lamar’s interesting background but was not familiar with the specifics.  Some in my book group were totally surprised by the story and were inspired to look into Lamarr’s life in greater detail and read other accounts.  This is a testament to Marie Benedict’s ability to spark interest in a topic. I personally think all good historical fiction has the potential to do just this.  If you enjoy The Only Woman in the Room, and would like to know more, you might be interested in Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes, Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Shearer or an or an autobiography:  Ecstasy and Me, My Life as a Woman.  You might also try other books by Marie Benedict in which she has shined light on hidden roles of women in history such as Carnegie’s Maid and The Other Einstein.

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Book Review: The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Posted by Aaron on

I recently came across an oldie on my bookshelf, The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard, and read a few basic reviews.  They were for the most part glowing, and the book was the 1980 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.  Shirley Hazzard is an Australian-born writer of both fiction and non-fiction know for her distinct style of prose.  The writing is beautiful, almost reminiscent of an earlier period when phrasing was often more lyrical, almost poetic.  Using exquisite language, with complex construction and nuance, she does have a way of capturing a character’s thoughts, a complex situation, or a point of view which I found unique and clever.

The Transit of Venus is a love story, albeit a gloomy version of the genre.  It is the story of two orphaned Australian girls who, upon entering adulthood post WWII, escape to England away from the overbearing, narcissistic female relative who has begrudgingly raised them.  What follows charts the course of their and loves and losses over the next 30 years.  Caro is a dynamic, glamorous soul with accompanying drama.  Introverted Grace settles into a more conventional situation.  Sprinkled throughout are a series of wholly unappealing lovers and husbands.

The plot is rather shallow, because it takes a back seat to the prose, and the lack of weight and clarity left me unsatisfied. The characters were an unhappy, brooding, unfaithful and unappealing lot.  Their portraits obtuse, I found myself not caring about them. The saga launches ahead in time to the 1960s and ‘70s with an introductory list of a few famous events which occurred during those decades.  But despite her obvious facility, the author doesn’t successfully evoke those times.

Her use of the language is impressive by any measure, but Ms Hazzard is an acquired taste.  I often found myself really having to concentrate to follow her.  This isn’t in itself a bad thing.  But it got in the way of me enjoying the book.  The fancy wording, delightful and insightful as it often was, did not always enhance the story.  I actually like a lot a description in a book and I don’t mind having to consult a dictionary, but it turned into a bit of a chore.  Almost self-indulgent, it was a little too clever by half.  The dialog was too elegant and cerebral to be believable.  Who talks that way?

To be fair, I did read it piecemeal, a chapter each night, so I never really got on a roll.  Perhaps with larger chunks of time devoted to it, I would have gotten into the flow of her style. It just required a little too much perseverance for a novel.  Shirley Hazzard, who passed away in 2016, is considered to be a brilliant writer and I was fascinated and impressed with her wordsmithery.  I was starting to get the hang of it in the latter stages, but admit I was impatient to finish.

I personally would not recommend this book, but I am in the minority.  Lovers of literature consider this one of their favorites.  So if that dichotomy piques your curiosity it may be worth a try.  You will know immediately in the first few pages whether or not the writing style is for you.  The story in itself isn’t very gripping or interesting.  You will find no mystery, drama, passionate romance, or twisting plot lines.  But a few pages in, if you find yourself captivated by the stylings of Shirley Hazzard, you may enjoy The Transit of Venus.

Regular print edition