Friday, May 16, 2014

Book Review: The Blonde

By Miriam Plotinsky

It’s impossible not to notice the Marilyn Monroe obsession that’s endured in this country for so many years. After all, she was an American icon with a reputation for killer curves, great beauty and mediocre acting ability. Incidentally, Marilyn was also never given much credit for being clever, even though she was married to playwright Arthur Miller in the mid-50s. However, The Blonde, by Anna Godbersen, seeks to dispel that myth and recreate a new, albeit fictional, portrait of Monroe. In this edgy novel, Monroe is reframed as a somewhat clueless but still shrewd, and sometimes deadly, KGB agent.

Godbersen sets up this alternate reality by introducing us to Marilyn as a child when her name is still Norma Jean. We realize in the earliest moments in the novel that while Monroe is perhaps not the sharpest person, she can be ruthless, particularly when it comes to safeguarding her own well-being. Early in her acting career, Monroe is visited by a mysterious and fatherly figure named Alexei who cuts a vague but immovable deal with her. Essentially, Monroe agrees to help Alexei down the road in exchange for fame and success. At its essence, this Faustian agreement is sinister, but as a young, broke actress, Monroe finds Alexei’s help to be an appealing option.

The book then fast-forwards several years to a pivotal time in Monroe’s career, when she is both wed to Miller and on the cusp of meeting John F. Kennedy. As Monroe becomes simultaneously estranged from her husband and attached to Kennedy, Alexei finally comes to call in his favor, and it’s a request that Monroe is loath to fulfill. Trapped in the promise she made years ago, Monroe has to figure out how to reclaim her life from a force of evil.

Godbersen has clearly researched her topic exhaustively, and the result is a book that feels historically significant even though the subject matter is largely made up. Just enough truth is infused into each plot point to give the entire story the ring of authenticity. Monroe herself is a sympathetic character who may share few traits with her real-life counterpart, but the character development is so rich that it’s easy to believe that the icon we all know about was a façade and that this version is the real Marilyn. Secondary characters, from Kennedy to Miller, are also quite believable. After all, the fact that Kennedy was a notorious womanizer is hardly news, and that facet of his personality works extremely well in the setup of this alternate reality.

The Blonde is an engrossing and detailed fictional look at a real person, and well worth the read. Though its fictional base remains at the back of the reader’s mind, it is easy to forget about that and believe that Marilyn Monroe actually worked as a secret agent for the Russians long ago. In fact, an ex-KGB agent once made a documentary alleging that Monroe had an affair with a Russian spy, so perhaps this book is not so fictional after all. Either way, the novel is a worthy testament to the ongoing American fascination with Marilyn Monroe. Few people have achieved the level of fame that Monroe has continued to elicit, so she must have indeed been a formidable person, spy or not.

Thanks to FSB Associates for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Anna Godberson:

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