The Hollywood Daughter
New York City, 1959. Jessica Malloy is a struggling journalist who has left her Hollywood childhood behind. But when she receives a mysterious invitation to the 1959 Academy Awards, she goes back to Los Angeles to confront the ghosts of her past.
Most of this coming-of-age novel is focused on Jessica’s teenage years in 1940s Hollywood. Caught between her strict Catholic mother and her publicist father, Jessica lives for the brief encounters she has with Ingrid Bergman, her father’s most famous star. When Ingrid plays a nun in The Bells of St Mary’s, which is filmed at Jessica’s own Catholic school, Jessica’s happiness seems complete. The Hollywood star in the role of a saintly nun brings together the competing impulses in Jessica’s life.
Jessica remains Ingrid’s staunch supporter even after the star’s adulterous affair with Roberto Rossellini is made public. As McCarthyism and censorship take over the Hollywood studios and Jessica’s heroes let her down, she learns that Ingrid and her parents are more fallible—but also more admirable—than she could have imagined.
I came to this novel already a fan of Alcott’s The Dressmaker, but I didn’t find The Hollywood Daughter quite as compelling. There are certainly some sparkling moments, such as Jessica’s confrontation with Ingrid on the island of Stromboli and a dramatic high school debating tournament. I also appreciated the way Alcott avoids both positive and negative stereotypes of nuns: the Mother Superior of Jessica’s school is particularly complex and well-drawn. My only complaint is that the last section of the novel, which returns to 1959, drags a little as it relentlessly ties up every loose end. Readers with an interest in Ingrid Bergman or 1940s and 50s Hollywood will enjoy Alcott’s latest offering.