The success of The Dressmaker, set during the sinking of the Titanic, has established Kate Alcott as a writer gifted with the inventiveness and knack for poignantly recreating precious historical moments. In her latest novel, A Touch of Stardust, she turns that talent to the charismatic, volatile world of 1939 Hollywood, and the making of the film version of the controversial and beloved classic novel, Gone With The Wind. The rapidfire movement of relentless social media, 24/7 behind the scenes access, and worse, revealing privacy leaks and scandals, render old school style glamour and unvarnished star power hard to fathom. That’s why it such a thrill to be drawn into the enchanting pages of A Touch of Stardust, and to feel, right away, that you’ve stepped back in time to rub shoulders with film greats like David O. Selznick, Vivian Leigh, and the vivacious Carol Lombard, whose relationship with Clark Gable counterbalances the heroine’s story.
Entrée into this dazzling world is provided by a gutsy newcomer from small town Wayne, Indiana, Julie Crawford. Ending her long-standing engagement, and leaving the wealth and comfort of her family seat, Julie hopes to prove she can support herself as a screenwriter. Evidence of failure surrounds her, and none is more jarring than her own when she is suddenly and unceremoniously fired by the mercurial filmmaking genius, David O. Selznick. Only in Hollywood, or a novel, does this kind of crash and burn portend potentially greater and more satisfying successes.
Assistance comes in the form of Selznick’s brilliant second-in-command, Andy Weinstein, who places Julie as Carol Lombard’s personal assistant. Andy and Julie’s budding romance delivers Julie to the forefront of observing and learning from the madcap negotiations, ingenuity and shenanigans required to complete a film as epic as Gone With The Wind. She sees everything, from the studio securing Clark Gable as Rhett Butler by financing his divorce, the search for the perfect Scarlett O’Hara, the stormy confrontations between Selznick and Louis B. Mayer over the movie’s now famous final scene, and also witnesses the inspiring romance between Gable and Lombard.
Alcott’s treatment of the period is expansive and she doesn’t neglect capturing the prejudices and dilemmas of the time. Hitler is dominating Europe, but the film industry is hesitant to alienate a lucrative source of income by exposing German atrocities, and the American president and people are reluctant to enter the war. Andy grapples with his identity as a Jew in anti-Semitic Hollywood, the long-term effect his heritage will have on his relationship with Julie, and his responsibility to help relatives overseas. Julie has to come to terms with pursuing a career where there is little respect for anyone, much less a woman. She also has her own concerns about standing up to her family and pursuing a relationship with the man she loves. Each character has to navigate their circumstances and their conscience to find a clear path to their happiness.
A Touch of Stardust oozes charm, and its clever blend of fact and fiction will delight historical fiction aficionados and film enthusiasts alike with picturesque visions of the film industry and a vintage era that will never exist again. Alcott’s lighthearted story of love, friendship and wide-eyed, small town girl makes good is underscored by heavier themes that add introspection and nuance without weighing down the plot or diminishing its shine.