Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Review: A Life of Barbara Stanwyck - Steel-True 1907-1940

When I opened the package I received in the mail containing Victoria Wilson's A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK - STEEL-TRUE, 1907-1940, my first response to this huge book was "Wow!"

That was still my reaction when I finally came to the end of the thousand-plus pages of this epic biography, which covers only the first 33 years of Stanwyck's life. There's still a half century left to go to fully tell the story of one of Hollywood's most respected actresses.

The book takes Stanwyck from her poor childhood to her early years in Hollywood, her disastrous marriage to the alcoholic Frank Fay, and ultimately finding love with the younger -- yet mature and stable -- Robert Taylor in the late '30s, all while her star keeps rising.

Yet it's not simply a biography of Barbara Stanwyck; it reads almost as a joint biography of Stanwyck and her second husband, Taylor. Even more than that, it's a portrait of Hollywood in the '30s, against the backdrop of war clouds looming in Europe. The book offers a rich depiction of the film industry at a certain place in time, regularly pausing to offer background on this actor or that director, with Stanwyck the center around which a larger story orbits.

The Stanwyck of the book is a complex, flawed, yet admirable personality; she seems to have been a terrible mother to her sole child, an adopted son -- perhaps the result of a lack of mothering during much of her own childhood, which included time in an orphanage -- yet she had a strong work ethic which was widely appreciated in her industry.

If I could offer a constructive criticism of this impressive book, particularly with the awareness that another volume is in the offing, it's that, even granting its intended scope, it would have benefited from tighter editing. When you're giving background on a novel which was the basis for one of Robert Taylor's movies, you may have gone too far in providing context.

Some of the transitions are also a bit random, such as a jump from discussion of a film planned for Stanwyck and Joel McCrea to discussion of Barbara and husband Bob attending the Hollywood Stars games at Gilmore Field.  Those rough "jump cuts" are occasionally a bit disconcerting; on the other hand, some of the short sections of information within each chapter made the book easier to pick up and put down, reading it in brief bursts as I could fit it into my schedule.

When I received the book in mid-December I'd hoped to review it by New Year's Day, but making it through a book of this size proved impossible in that short a time frame! It was well worth the time invested, and I look forward to the second volume with anticipation.

A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK is 1044 pages, including footnotes and index. It's well-illustrated with many unique photos; the illustrations are printed on the text pages, as opposed to glossy inserts.

Sincere thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy of this book.


Blogger KC said...

Yeah, you nailed it. This is an amazing book, and I loved getting a good sense of the times Stanwyck lived in and the people she knew, but when your subject disappears for pages at a time, it's time to trim. I hope you'll do more book reviews Laura. It's fun to get your perspective.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for your feedback, KC!

I have a couple more book reviews in the works! I admire how consistently you review books at your site and do hope to do them here a little more frequently. :)

Best wishes,

6:03 PM  

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