Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"For there is no way to avoid danger if you are beautiful."

2 out of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I was asked by the author, Ben Lokey, to read and write a fair and honest review of this book. No monies or other favors were promised or exchanged by either party in return for this review and I had never had previous contact with said author.

At first glance, Beauty Possessed seems to be your typical, self-published historical fiction novel. Enthusiastic, but rough, a good, solid story buried beneath multiple editing errors. However, upon completing the book, I realized Beauty Possessed has less merit and more errors than I imagined it would. Going in, I was all prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to the book and had high hopes for it. After all, as a fellow writer, I understand the blood, sweat, and tears which go into producing a novel. That said, I think Lokey needs to bleed, sweat, and cry a bit more.

Lets talk about the editing. The book as it stands now is approximately one step up from a rough draft. It needed to go through at least two more rounds of editing to clean up the formatting issues and story inconsistencies, not to mention the biggest boo-boo of all: the flip-flopping P.O.V.s. The novel starts out in the 1st person from Evelyn's P.O.V., which worked, as it created a lovely, intimate feeling to the story, but then it switches to 3rd person omniscient. Not to mention, when the story is being told in the 1st person, it occasionally becomes an omniscient P.O.V., with Evelyn knowing what other people are doing after she's left the scene. For example, on pg. 72, Evelyn, in her 1st person P.O.V., relates “I found Stan's cab waiting for me. Edna and Nell came out just in time to see me get into the cab and pull away. They were not happy. Apart from the crowd, standing in the shadows, was the man with the handlebar mustache. As the crowds dispersed, he stayed, lit a pipe and waited. A moment later, the cab came around the corner and stopped in front of my apartment across the street. I hopped out and ran up the stairs and through the door, and the cab pulled away. The man wrote something down in a small notebook, then walked off.” Okay, how did Evelyn know what the man did with his notebook after she'd entered her apartment building? Did she have X-ray vision or ESP? This kind of awareness of hers occurs many times throughout the book. Even if Evelyn were writing in hindsight, she would still only be able to narrate those actions she witnessed, with the occasional "I was told later" type of addition. Pick a P.O.V. and stick with it. If you want to use the 1st person narrative yet have other views of the story, use the 1st person with Stanford and Thaw and switch viewpoints chapter by chapter. Alternately, stick with the 3rd person omniscient; that way you can show actions your character wouldn't know about if you were using the 1st person. Frankly, the first couple of chapters really set up the book well, before things got sloppy, and I really enjoyed the 1st person viewpoint using Evelyn's voice. It felt as though I were interviewing an older Evelyn, in some nursing home sitting room, a more settled and more wrinkled version of herself, and as she related her story chapter by chapter, gradually the old twinkle returned to her rheumy eyes and some of that sexually charged flirtatiousness returned to her movements.

The formatting is sloppy. Lines often run together and you can tell line at the rear was supposed to start a new paragraph, but for some reason it didn't, probably because space(s) were left at the end of the previous line. Also, when Lokey's trying to convey separate events happening at the same time, in a sort of mosaic scene, he runs the paragraphs describing those events together. Each paragraph, each viewpoint, should be separated by either a soft hiatus or set of lines or an asterisk. Not only would it make who's doing what clearer, it would also add drama and a sense of tension to the overall scene he's trying to create.

The story inconsistencies are truly troubling. Lokey writes about events out of order, which is strange as he has Evelyn's own autobiography to act as a timeline, not to mention several reputable non-fiction books out there detailing the lives of Evelyn, Stanford White, and Harry K. Thaw. For instance, when Evelyn loses her hair after her appendectomy, Lokey writes that this happened when they were in Europe and that Thaw took Evelyn to a wig shop where her head was shaved. However, Evelyn's hair loss took place immediately after the operation, while she was still recuperating in the private sanitarium. Evelyn's mother held her up in the bed while Harry's valet, Bedford, did the shearing. She was never bald, but instead was given a crew cut. Also, Lokey describes Evelyn as describing herself as being all of 4' 10” tall, yet all the sources I've read place Evelyn at 5' 3” tall. Those sources also say she was born in 1884, not 1885. (Yes, there are some questions about that due to Mrs. Nesbit lying so many times to fit Evelyn's age to whatever the situation required; however, it's usually safe to assume a starlet is older than what she'd like people to believe, not to mention we have Mrs. Nesbit's recollection that Evelyn was born in an even year.) Lokey mentions the infamous incident with the “girl in the pie” as taking place shortly after Stanford White met Evelyn, yet that event occurred before Evelyn was in NY, according to her own autobiography and other sources, taking place in 1895, and the girl popping out of the pie was not naked, as written by Lokey, but clad in transparent black chiffon. What was truly strange was when Evelyn makes her first trip to one of Stanford White's apartments (or love nests), the one on West 24th Street. Lokey has her describing it as an ordinary building with a toy store for a front. Um, that toy store happened to be FAO Schwartz, only the most famous toy store in the world. True, in her autobiography Evelyn herself describes it as only a “toy store,” yet we know it's FAO Schwartz, so why not describe it that way?

The most disturbing part of the novel is the psychology of the characters, especially Evelyn. Why she tolerates and eventually marries Thaw is never fully explored or explained, which, I assumed, was the whole point of this novel being written. Yes, Evelyn herself is immature and essentially still a child, which works well with Thaw's infantile mindset, but that doesn't explain why, after being exposed to Thaw's dark side, she would continue to associate with the man. Greed and the desire for lots of pretty things can only go so far. Basically, I'm not given a hint as to motivations for any of the characters. I had hoped to discover some reason, albeit fictional, for the personages involved in this spectacle to have behaved the way they did. That was lacking. It seems to me Lokey was simply perpetuating the image of Evelyn as a gold-digger, a whore, a woman who was only after what she could get and deserved every bit of horror perpetrated upon her, instead of illustrating Eveylyn as a girl of 16, 17, who was at the mercy of the world, having an incompetent mother to (vaguely) supervise her and no idea of how to cope with the situations in which she was placed. I mean, this was a girl who was trapped between the powerful and persuasive White and the deranged and persistent Thaw, with no one to rely on for support. No wonder she ended up the way she did. Lokey also perpetrates the rumor that when Evelyn had her attack of appendicitis, it was actually a cover for an illegal abortion, a story based on rumor and supposition by the yellow press and vehemently denied on the stand by both Evelyn and John Barrymore.

The actual writing, the technicality of it, was serviceable, but not brilliant. The dialogue was, on the whole, well done and the narration could occasionally be engaging and colorful. However, it moved too fast, rushing the reader through events and scenes without giving the reader a chance to absorb the atmosphere. This was especially noticeable in those scenes where Evelyn was meeting the big names of the day: Harry Houdini, Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, among others. I will say one thing, this quick pace made the book a fast read; there certainly were no slow, boggy sections to drag the novel out. The other good point about the novel is Lokey didn't info dump; relevant information was given in just the right way to illuminate the scene without detracting from it.

There are some good bones to this novel. It just needs a lot of cosmetic work (and some structural work) before it should be presented to the public.

Read May 20-22, 2012
Reviewed May 23, 2012

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