December 17, 2022
In this masterpiece of a novel set in the Hollywood of the mid nineteen-fifties, the travails of black-listed screenwriters are deftly juxtaposed with the faraway struggle of Rosa Parks’ bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Named for Cyrano de Bergerac’s great love, the heroine, Roxanne Granville, is born to Hollywood royalty in the person of her grandfather, Leon Greene, head of the powerful “Empire Pictures.” When Roxanne falls head-over-heels in love with Terrence, a Black reporter for the NAACP “Challenger,” in what is presented as one of only two sins that it is possible to commit in Hollywood –miscegenation– she unwittingly unleashes a series of events that culminate in tragedy. We, the readers, are presented with the unassailable fact that Los Angeles in the fifties was every bit as racist as Montgomery. The only difference is the thin sheen of manners that covers racism, West Coast-style.
Despite the cauldron of emotions that Roxanne and Terrence’s affair provokes, ratcheting up Roxanne’s conflict with Leon to an almost unbearable tension, “The Great Pretenders” delights with its light-hearted tone. Like a soufflé, the writing conjures the frothiness of the Hollywood concoction, as Roxanne becomes an agent and lunches with the rich and famous. Iconic settings from Laurel Canyon to Malibu, with its “PCH” (Pacific Coast Highway,) are brilliantly rendered, as is a boisterous scene in “The Comet Club,” a Black jazz venue that jumps right out of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Tragic events are tempered by a delicious tragi-comic element: one of the worst affronts to Roxanne’s dignity takes the form of her evisceration in one of Hedda Hopper’s columns. Moreover, Los Angeles would not be Los Angeles without the automobile, and the cars that the protagonists drive—a temperamental MG for Roxanne and a well-engineered Porsche for Terrence—become nothing less than their avatars, adding dynamism to their personalities in ways that mere clothing choices and turns of phrase could not.
Beginning with the funeral of one character and ending with the funeral of another, “The Great Pretenders” has a beautiful symmetry of form. And did I mention the ending? It is as satisfying as it was, for this reader, unexpected. I give the book five stars!