Over the past year or so, I’ve discovered I really enjoy female-centered books set in Old Hollywood. Which isn’t something I expected, but I’m going with it. And maybe it’s that 1950s Hollywood setting, or the gorgeous yellow dress on the cover, but Laura Kalpakian’s The Great Pretenders caught my eye. And… I have thoughts.
(All reviews are spoiler-free unless otherwise noted.)
(From Goodreads) The daughter of Hollywood royalty, Roxanne Granville is used to getting what she wants–even if she has to break the rules. But after a falling-out with her grandfather, a powerful movie mogul, she has to face life on her own for the first time….
Roxanne forges a career unique for women in the 1950s, becoming an agent for hungry young screenwriters. She struggles to be taken seriously by the men who rule Hollywood and who often assume that sexual favors are just a part of doing business. When she sells a script by a blacklisted writer under the name of a willing front man, more exiled writers seek her help. Roxanne wades into a world murky with duplicity and deception, and she can’t afford any more risks.
Then she meets Terrence Dexter, a compelling African American journalist unlike anyone she’s ever known. Roxanne again breaks the rules, and is quickly swept up in a passionate relationship with very real dangers that could destroy everything she’s carefully built.
Roxanne Granville is a woman who bravely defies convention. She won’t let men make all the rules, and won’t let skin color determine whom she can love. The Great Pretenders is a riveting, emotional novel that resonates in today’s world, and reminds us that some things are worth fighting for.
I don’t even know where to start with this book. Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan. I can’t remember ever being turned off by a book this quickly. I always pride myself on giving books a fair shot, and I was actually looking forward to reading this one, but I just didn’t enjoy it at all. And I have a few reasons why.
Number one: the writing. I was actually shocked to find out the author has a PhD in literature, because the writing is just… bad. To be fair, The Great Pretenders is the only book I have read by Laura Kalpakian, so I can’t speak to her other work (though the fact that she wrote a sequel to Les Mis kind of rubs me the wrong way). But I kind of hated the writing. It felt like the first draft of an inexperienced author, not someone who’s written several books and has an advanced degree in literature. I actually found myself grimacing several times while attempting to read this. Especially during the dialogue. It’s what I imagine an aspiring screenwriter’s first attempt would look like – really awkward and not very realistic.
Surprisingly, while the writing was mediocre, it still managed to come off as pretentious. Which is something I really don’t like even when the writing is great. You never want to make your readers feel inferior, and this reminded me a lot of those kids in college who have to constantly make it clear how well-read they are. I’ve discovered over the years that no one can name-drop Ayn Rand without sounding pretentious. Read Atlas Shrugged if you want, but know you’re probably going to sound like an asshole if you talk about it (try it and see). This book not only does so, but the characters have a full conversation about how just watching the adaptation of The Fountainhead is not the same as reading the book. It just came off as condescending, and it rubbed me the wrong way. Also, this book opens with an epigraph from Casablanca: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” That’s what’s supposed to set the tone for this novel, and I just didn’t really get why or how.
The story itself was just okay, it wasn’t anything particularly special. And, for me, the writing kind of distracted from everything else, so I found it impossible to be invested in any of the characters. Small plus for featuring a interracial relationship in the 1950s (the only truly redeeming quality of this book), but I’m also hesitant to call this a good representation of diverse literature. I’d be curious to see what others think, because I am not African American, and can’t speak to that experience. However, the sheer number of times the word “negro” was used in the first few pages alone made me kind of uncomfortable. I know that was historically accurate, but the author seemed to emphasize that they were “the help” and repeatedly described everyone in the service industry as African American or “colored”. (What’s wrong with just saying “janitor”? You never hear anyone say “white janitor”.) I read A LOT of historical fiction, including a decent amount with diverse characters, and I can’t remember a time when I was made this uncomfortable by the way an author mentions race. I had a hard time getting past it. (I just read the Publisher’s Weekly review of The Great Pretenders, and they thought this book was a little racist, too.)
I hate writing bad reviews, but I’m not going to lie and say “this book was amazing!” when it wasn’t. There is a lot wrong with this book. I hated the writing, and felt uncomfortable far too often (and I don’t think the author means to make the reader uncomfortable for effect). Ultimately, I didn’t enjoy reading it at all.
★☆☆☆☆ – I have conflicted feelings about this book. I actually initially gave it two stars. Then I realized I really didn’t like The Great Pretenders. I couldn’t honestly say it’s a good book, and I wouldn’t recommend it.
The Great Pretenders will be available in bookstores April 16. If you’re interested, you can order a copy on Amazon now.
To get the audiobook for free, use this link to sign up for a free trial of Audible and choose The Great Pretenders as one of your two free books.
This book was provided to me by NetGalley and the publisher. All opinions are my own.
*This post contains affiliate links, which means I may get a small commission for purchases made through this post.*