Elizabeth Frank deftly explores a singularly ignoble era of American history with her towering debut novel, Cheat and Charmer. Frank, whose 1986 biography of poet Louise Bogan won a Pulitzer Prize, now brings to life 1950s Hollywood its superficial morality and its seamy underbelly. It is 1951, and the government's witch-hunt to destroy communism is in full swing. Dinah Lasker, wife of a popular screenwriter and one-time member of the communist party, is ordered to testify against her sister, a former starlet who also was a communist.
Dinah, a housewife with two children, knows she is merely a pawn to the politicians. They're hunting bigger game, and have made it quite clear that if Dinah doesn't give the names they want, her husband will be blacklisted and never work in the film business again. Whatever her choice, Dinah must betray someone she loves. Like a pebble tossed in the ocean, her decision touches off a chain of events that profoundly affect her life and the lives of those around her.
From glitzy Hollywood to sultry Broadway to the glamorous and superficial existences of the literary haute monde of post-World War II Europe, Frank captures the era's incongruous mix of naivetÅ½ and decadence. Yet it's in the quiet moments that the book truly soars. Dinah and her husband Jake, who is little more than an overgrown boy with talent, are introspective people, and it is when they are inside of themselves or performing mundane tasks that they truly become human. That is also when Frank's colossal talent shines through. Twenty-five years in the making, Frank's richly packed tale can be deemed no less than a magnificent achievement on par with any Hollywood novel ever written. With a master's brush, she paints a mural of human folly that is breathtaking in its scope, yet marvelous in its simplicity. Ian Schwartz writes from New York City.