It’s 1936, time for the Berlin Olympics. Gorgeous German movie star and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, 34, goes through handsome men the way some of us go through historical novels. Leni’s next conquest will be Glenn Morris, a 24-year-old decathlon winner from tiny Simla, Colorado.
Author Frei alternates between following Morris on the Olympic squad and Riefenstahl on the Nazi squad as the filmmaker maneuvers to create the infamous documentary Triumph of the Will. Morris comes across in this novel like the kind of guy who might have been just right for her, someone naively tentative about himself and the world, someone who avoids signing a friend’s petition he didn’t approve of by hiding in a bathroom rather than taking a stand.
Frei is a sportswriter, and this novel reflects that: it includes a lot of sports statistics and sometimes reads like a sports article with dialog rather than fiction. (It’s sure to appeal most to readers who typically prefer sports articles to fiction!) Its most intriguing moments are well-drawn glimpses into everyday Americans’ reactions to Nazism in 1936. Jesse Owens is a character, showing how America’s own dismaying racial history confused the young athletes. I also enjoyed scenes with Paul Gallico, a sportswriter of that era who went on to write great fiction like The Snow Goose. I was challenged, however, by my dislike for the amoral Riefenstahl and by my indifference to Morris. Where was his backbone? It was, however, a reminder that average people can become stars. Frei is honest to that reality and so tells a story about a nonentity and a villain.