The first novel by Chandler Burr, New York Times perfume critic and the author of three books of nonfiction, is bound to generate chatter—not only because it features cameos by practically everyone in the New York publishing world (from David Remnick to Claudia Roth Pierpont) and several from Hollywood (Bryan Singer), but also because of the delicate subject at the center of its plot. Narrator Anne Rosenbaum is an immediately fascinating character, sharp-tongued and well read. She’s an Englishwoman happily married to a Jewish studio executive, Howard Rosenbaum. Anne is mostly isolated from the film world until, one day, someone in the industry asks her to compile a reading list. As things do in Hollywood, this catches on, and soon Anne is leading book clubs of directors and screenwriters from her back garden. Variety profiles her; “Talk of the Town” chimes in, too.
Anne’s unlikely rise to fame drives the book, and Burr has loads of fun with it. The first half of the novel is fast, witty and often hilarious, filled with delight in the power of language. There’s a wonderful dinner-table treatise on the lack of a comma between independent clauses in an article in The New Yorker; these things matter to Anne, and because of that, they begin to matter to others.
What jams up the gears is something that happens when Anne and Howard’s teenage son, Sam, takes a two-week trip to Israel. Anne isn’t Jewish, and so according to Israel neither is Sam; his rejection from a yeshiva throws Howard unexpectedly into crisis. Racial and religious identity, once peripheral, becomes a direct threat to Anne’s marriage. As her husband pulls away, Anne uses the massive and efficient Hollywood gossip machine to communicate with him through the book clubs. Toward the end of the novel, Anne (and hence the story) gets bogged down in argument, and the humor of the first half shifts toward poignancy. But it’s a gentle shift, not jarring, and it serves to underscore Burr’s point: that ideas have more power over our lives than we realize, and that literature is our best hope for finding our way.
Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.