Running two narratives throughout a novel can be risky. They have to be distinct and equally engaging or readers will rush through one to get back to their prefered story. It’s a delicate balancing act but when it works, as with Ajay Close’s recent The Daughter Of Lady Macbeth, then it gives you two stories for the price of one, each of which feed into and enhance the other.
J. David Simon’s latest novel, A Woman Of Integrity, gets the balance right as he moves between the early-mid years of the last century and the present day. Both narrative strands concentrate on women fighting to keep their dignity and self-respect and struggling to achieve their aims and ambitions in the face of mostly, but not exclusively, male betrayal, prejudice and deceit. As the book unfolds Simons makes social and cultural comparisons between the two ages, and it becomes clear that the more things have changed the more they have stayed the same.
We first meet Laura, an actress who has just been unceremoniously dumped by her agent and who believes her career is, if not very nearly over, then very really over. At a dinner-party held by an old-friend and rival (the two often one and the same in her world) she is offered the chance of her dream role, to play a Hollywood silent-movie star who went on to become someone who, through an extraordinary life, helped define the 20th century. Her name is Georgie Hepburn, and we learn about her as Laura does while she researches her life, loves, highs and lows.
It transpires that Georgie is a woman who refused to be ignored or controlled, despite many trying to do so. When the promise of an even greater film career is offered her, what begins with a request to change her name is just the thin edge of an increasingly exploitative wedge as people who view her as a possession rather than an individual look to take advantage at every turn. As a result her acting career is halted in a manner more cruel even than that of Laura, but the latter sees comparisons between the two and as the novel continues so do we. Learning of Georgie’s experiences and challenges inspires Laura who becomes determined that only she can do this increasingly personal project justice.
Similarly, Laura finds she is being used and discarded, often at the same time. Her enthusiasm for playing Georgie is exploited by those whose agendas are equally personal. The difference is they are looking out for themselves whereas Laura is, arguably perhaps, putting Georgie’s story first.
Each age is depicted with references which help create the perfect setting. This is perhaps easier for Georgie’s story, but even then Simons’ forgoes the obvious for the more interesting. Battleship Potemkin, the classic age of jazz, Hitchcock, Novello, Chaplin, and a reading of a menu from The Savoy Grill, are all referenced to immediately take the reader to a time and place.
The references to the present day are more arch and humorous, such as Laura’s lucrative work as the voice of a cartoon crab. The dinner party, where she is placed between Fredrik, a Swede who claims to be able to predict at what age someone will die, and Sal Yerkshaw, a documentary film maker and theatre producer, could be straight from a Woody Allen film. Then there’s the Californian lifestyle of Laura’s great love, actor Jack Muirhead, who is the living embodiment of a Vanity Fair cover star. Simons’ has a great eye for those little things which lend the bigger picture a believability it may not have had otherwise.
I should mention the supporting cast. Both women come into contact with a fantastic coterie of characters who would not be out-of-place in a John Irving novel. For Laura, there is the aforementioned Sal who sells her the idea of the project in the first place, but there is also Quentin, the keeper of Georgie’s memory but with ambitions of his own. Lady Caroline is Laura’s life long nemesis who sees herself as in competition with Laura despite appearing to have a life which many would envy, and then there is her New York ex-agent, Edy Weinberg, who is the latest addition to the grand tradition of great fictional Hollywood agents.
Georgie comes into contact with people with names such as Max Rosen, Hubert Hoffsteter and Roland Paxton-Jones (“Call me Rollo”), lending her world a touch of P.G. Wodehouse or the Mitford sisters, but it’s the support of her Aunt Ginny, and her god-daughter Susan, which means the most to Georgie, especially as time goes by. There are not many people in either woman’s world who have not got some hidden, or even blatant, agenda so when such characters do appear it is refreshing.
It will be no surprise to long-term readers of Scots Whay Hae! that I rate A Women Of Integrity highly as Simons’ earlier novel An Exquisite Sense Of What Is Beautiful (to which there are lovely nods in this latest) remains one of my favourites of the last ten years. Never flashy or sensational for the sake of it, Simons imbues his stories with wit, intelligence and an attention to detail, of which other writers would do well to take note. A novel of great style as well as substance, fiction as accessible as this is rare and I can’t imagine someone reading A Women Of Integrity and not thoroughly enjoying it.