I, Gloria Grahame – Sky Gilbert (Dundurn Press)

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Dundurn Press

Although I always enjoy a good genre novel, I also love to find something I haven’t read before. If you’re as jaded as I am, that’s not easy, but occasionally, I’ll run across something like I, Gloria Grahame, by Sky Gilbert, whose unconventional plot line takes me some interesting directions before I wind up someplace totally different than I expected to be.

Professor Denton Moulton is a bit of a schlub. He’s gotten his tenure, his teaching schedule is ideal, and his life really isn’t much of a challenge. However, his one desire is to see his beloved stage treatment of Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis come to life–with the cutest boy he can find playing Venus. Oh, and he thinks he’s Gloria Grahame, the Oscar-winning Fifties actress who married not only director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) but Ray’s son as well.

Okay, he’s not delusional enough to actually think he’s Grahame, but he identifies with her closely and uses getting into her head and writing her story as a retreat for when his own existence threatens to overwhelm him. And as he moves through the interviews for a grant to bring his show to the stage, the forces line up to do just that, dealing him one bureaucratic blow after another. If it’s not his unsophistication with pronouns, it’s his racial identity being up for grabs. These dialogues are among the funniest, most frustrating in the whole book.

Not that Grahame’s life is all that rosy. Her husband, brilliant director Nicholas Ray, is also an abusive alcoholic who needs to kick open his closet door. But his career won’t allow that. Instead, he takes his frustrations out on Grahame and Tony, his son from his first marriage. The scene where he catches them together (it’s not a spoiler; it’s Hollywood legend) is genuinely terrifying because you don’t know what Ray will do. And author Gilbert has crafted an excellent voice for his legendary actress, which sounds altogether different from that of Professor Moulton. You don’t have to depend on chapter headings to tell you whose head we’re in.

Gilbert’s alternating storylines work well for him. The heaviness of Grahame’s life gets a nice balance with the equally-desperate-even-if-he-doesn’t-know-it actions of the professor. Grahame and Moulton are both seekers trying to find their way against a repressive society, and in that way their stories are similar even if their circumstances are not.

More than the sum of its parts, I, Gloria Grahame comes at you from a number of different directions, weaving the plotlines together beautifully until it transcends genre and becomes a creature of its own. I really enjoyed this and hope you will as well.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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