Stars in His Eyes

Written by Adrian Nathan West (trans.) Marti Gironell
Review by Jessica Brockmole

In 1949, twenty-one-year-old Ceferino Carrión flees Barcelona to escape Franco’s violent regime and evade mandatory military service. He stows away on a ship bound for New York, where he finds a home with his uncle and a new identity as Justo Ramon, a Puerto Rican neighbor’s son with American citizenship. But restless Cefe doesn’t stay in New York long; he travels west to Hollywood, where he tries his hand working for an agent, driving a taxi, and finally waiting tables and befriending celebrities at Frank Sinatra’s restaurant. Reinventing himself yet again, as Frenchman Jean Leon, Cefe opens the swanky restaurant La Scala in Beverly Hills. Twelve years after leaving Catalonia, Cefe returns to plant a vineyard and establish the winery that still bears his name.

This fictionalized biography of Jean Leon, restaurateur-to-the-stars, is a translation of a novel by a bestselling Catalan author. The book promised an inspiring story of a go-getting immigrant and a glimpse of midcentury Hollywood, but, for this reader, doesn’t follow through on that promise. Instead it offers a story of a man who achieves success through deceit—first, by claiming American citizenship through false papers, later, by lying for Sinatra in order to earn his trust. The book leaps from event to event in Leon’s life, with few stumbling blocks along the way, offering him little opportunity for character growth. Even the precipitating event—fleeing Franco’s Spain—offers no sense of urgency or danger, and the reader is left wondering what keeps Leon away from his family in Barcelona for so long. Gironell has the aggravating tendency to tell rather than show, and to skip ahead to mundane moments, shunting key events to flashbacks. A largely plotless, tensionless novel that fails to bring midcentury America to life.