Mercury Pictures Presents: A Novel

by Anthony Marra

Hardcover, 2022

Call number




Hogarth (2022), 432 pages


Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML:NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER �?� The epic tale of a brilliant woman who must reinvent herself to survive, moving from Mussolini�??s Italy to 1940s Los Angeles�??a timeless story of love, deceit, and sacrifice from the award-winning author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena �??A genuinely moving and life-affirming novel that�??s a true joy to read.�?��??Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere �??A gorgeous book . . . sublime.�?��??The New York Times (Editors�?? Choice) ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: NPR Like many before her, Maria Lagana has come to Hollywood to outrun her past. Born in Rome, where every Sunday her father took her to the cinema instead of church, Maria immigrates with her mother to Los Angeles after a childhood transgression leads to her father�??s arrest. Fifteen years later, on the eve of America�??s entry into World War II, Maria is an associate producer at Mercury Pictures, trying to keep her personal and professional lives from falling apart. Her mother won�??t speak to her. Her boss, a man of many toupees, has been summoned to Washington by congressional investigators. Her boyfriend, a virtuoso Chinese American actor, can�??t escape the studio�??s narrow typecasting. And the studio itself, Maria�??s only home in exile, teeters on the verge of bankruptcy. Over the coming months, as the bright lights go dark across Los Angeles, Mercury Pictures becomes a nexus of European émigrés: modernist poets trying their luck as B-movie screenwriters, once-celebrated architects becoming scale-model miniaturists, and refugee actors finding work playing the very villains they fled. While the world descends into war, Maria rises through a maze of conflicting politics, divided loyalties, and jockeying ambitions. But when the arrival of a stranger from her father�??s past threatens Maria�??s carefully constructed facade, she must finally confront her father�??s fate�??and her own. Written with intelligence, wit, and an exhilarating sense of possibility, Mercury Pictures Presents spans many moods and tones, from the heartbreaking to the ecstatic. It is a love letter to life�??s bit players, a panorama of an era that casts a long shadow over our own, and a tour de force by a novelist whose work The Washington Post calls �??a… (more)

Media reviews

The line between art and agitprop can be narrow, and rarely more so than in Hollywood, where people sometimes struggle to know (or care) what art is to begin with. This notion hovers behind Anthony Marra’s elegant new novel, “Mercury Pictures Presents,” in which Artie Feldman, the improbably
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endearing vulgarian who runs the book’s titular studio — the sort of B-movie factory that flourished in the slipstream of Hollywood’s majors during the Golden Age 1930s and ’40s — keeps his toupee collection displayed in his office and has never met a bad idea he didn’t love....It is impossible to do justice to Marra’s smooth, sweeping style in bits — viewed in isolation, such descriptions could easily seem overwrought and clumsy — but knit together, these pieces have striking command and authority. This is a gorgeous book, but its gorgeousness, too, might be merely a false front for what’s really on its mind.... The success of “Mercury Pictures Presents,” both the novel and the Hollywood entity it depicts, is evanescent and ambiguous, enduring and clear all at once. Whether Artie, the showman, and Maria, the book’s historical anchor and ethical conscience, will survive is one question, but the ideas posed by Marra’s novel assuredly do, and they resonate all the more strongly through our own contemporary, distressingly fascist-adjacent, moment.
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Marra has published his second novel, a story set before and during World War II called “Mercury Pictures Presents.” The author’s fans, who include former president Barack Obama, will recognize his elegant resolution of tangled disasters, his heartbreaking poignancy, his eye for historical
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curiosities that exceed the parameters of fiction. But the emotional range here is narrower, the record of human cruelty more subtle. And if “Mercury Pictures Presents” doesn’t generate the impact of “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” well, that’s an impossibly high standard.... Marra demonstrates his remarkable ability to capture the intricate cruelties of political and social collapse. Borrowing the tropes of spy thrillers and police procedurals, he transcribes a web of chaos and kindness that carries a few lucky souls through the fires of Italy’s collapse. Along the way, he sets down the lines of future coincidences so outlandish that only history could validate them.... The novel’s most fascinating move is the way it teases out the complications of realism — particularly in the service of propaganda. Marra describes studio filmmakers struggling to shoot footage of actual battle scenes that looks convincing. Despite their best efforts, the technological limits of the cameras make the documentary reels appear tiny and confusing. The only solution, ultimately, is to fake the carnage with reenactments. “Everywhere,” Marra deadpans, “there was a pent-up hunger for what resembled reality.” ...What’s real is rendered fake; what’s fake is passed off as real. Who can maintain a sense of moral clarity in such a national house of mirrors? can trust that the novel will eventually resolve into focus with a moment of radical compassion that emits no more noise than a sigh.
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Marra’s prose is fluid and sprightly; each sentence is imbued with wit and heart and dances to its own internal rhythm. The dialogue is crisp and filled with ripostes and underline-worthy bon mots. The characters are simultaneously larger than life and all too human, utterly memorable. The
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historically iconic settings are brought sensuously to life by Marra’s cinematic eye. Marra has ascended to the top of the literary ranks.
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Like the author’s earlier novels, the award-winning A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013) and The Tsar of Love and Techno (2015), this one builds a discrete world and shows how its denizens are shaped—often warped—by circumstance. But the Hollywood setting feels overfamiliar and the
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characters curiously uninvolving. While the prose frequently sings, there are also ripely overwritten passages: At a party, the “thunking heels of lindy-hopping couples dimpled the boozy air”; fireworks are described as a “molten asterisk in the heavens to which the body on the ground is a footnote.” The World War II Hollywood setting is colorful, but it’s just a B picture.
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Marra’s meticulously crafted latest (after the collection The Tsar of Love and Techno) follows a host of outsiders as they try to make it through pre-WWII Italy and wartime Los Angeles with some of their morals intact.... While Marra’s pleasure in the details and argot of the past occasionally
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feels like overkill, this tough-minded, funny outing exemplifies what Maria calls the democratic promise of “the miniaturist’s gaze,” in which “all were worthy.” Thanks to Marra, the pleasure is contagious.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member gbill
Anthony Marra’s Mercury Picture Presents is an intriguing intersection of topics for me, combining as it does old Hollywood with the WWII era and the immigrant experience in America. It’s entertaining as a story and educational in its references, including Germanic King Alaric’s buried
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plunder, Carl Laemmle challenging Thomas Edison’s filmmaking patents, anti-Semitic North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye leading the “America First” isolationism and advocating for Japanese-American internment, the “Battle of L.A.” false alarm in February, 1942, and America building model Axis cities to test fire bombing efficiency at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah (which carried out on real cities like Tokyo, Berlin, and Dresden ordinarily would have been considered war crimes). Hey, anyone who knows and writes about the oppressive reign of Joseph Breen in administering the Production Code over a couple decades scores points with me. Marra also weaves in little factoids like the use of black widow spider silk in the crosshairs for bombsights because of its unique properties.

The main characters have fled Europe because of the rise of fascism. There are twin brothers who are independent film producers who have a sister stuck back in Poland. One of them has an assistant who left Italy as a little girl with her mother, but her father is still imprisoned there. Her boyfriend is an Asian-American actor trying to get parts in Hollywood that aren’t stereotypical. There are lots of other characters but this is the lens through which the story is told, perhaps the flipside to the usual representation of America in WWII. It felt a little heavy-handed at times in trying to accomplish this, especially at a time when so many other writers are trying to do the same thing, but not overly so. Marra is a strong, intelligent writer, and while staring history in the face he also peppers his fiction with humor and well-developed characters. It was a very enjoyable read, and I look for more from him.

Just one quote, on Christianity and communism:
[speaking of Jesus] “Talking about a fella who needs psychoanalysis. Poor guy thinks his dad’s God and his mom’s a virgin. No wonder he has a messiah complex. Still, I must admit, I like Jesus’s politics. Feeding the hungry, blessing the meek, wearing a robe to work.”
Ned frowned; a junior nobody from Columbia had a better table than them. “The problem with Christianity, of course, is the Christians.”
“It’s like communism. A belief system based on human dignity that somehow incites its adherents to mass murder.”
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
This novel moves from Italy in the early days of fascism there, to the back lots and sound stages of a Hollywood studio. Along the way, Marra tells us the stories of con men and desperate sons, of feuding brothers and absent mothers and a movie studio teetering on the edge of insolvency. At the
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center of the story is Maria, a girl when her father is arrested and sent into internal exile, who immigrates to Los Angeles with her mother, grows up and begins work at a movie studio, where she works her way up to run the place for her boss, a man of many toupees and a summons to appear before a Congressional committee. Maria works in a studio filled with the flotsam and jetsam of the war in Europe, all hiding secrets. Maria has one of her own, and her chances to come clean are narrowing by the day.

So this is a big novel, both in size and sweep. Marra doesn't limit himself to only a few characters or only a few places. It's a testament to his skill that it all comes together as well as it does; that his many diversions into side characters don't sink the story he's telling, but instead enhance it. This was a fast-paced novel with some happy endings, but also some tragic ones. Marra manages to write a novel full of heart without tipping into sentimentality. It was a lot of fun to read.
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LibraryThing member nancyadair
I loved this book. I loved the clever wit, how I laughed out loud. I loved the characters, warm and real, flawed, and memorable. This is genius writing, a sweeping historical novel that tackles big social and political issues, incorporating hard truths, and yet left me uplifted and hopeful.

Set in
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1940s Hollywood, soon peopled with refugees from fascist Europe, it is the story of Maria whose socialist father was sentenced to internal exile in Mussolini’s Italy. She and her mother immigrated to America, and now she is associate producer at Mercury Pictures, underpaid and uncredited. Her boss Mercury studio founder Artie Feldman names his toupees and is mired in a never-ending battle over studio control with his twin brother. Maria loves a Chinese American, but miscegenation laws force them to keep their relationship under wraps. Her father, in exile, had saved the life of a young man, Nino, whose mother takes him in. He helps the boy with an education. Nino escapes Italy using a false identity, and years later he seeks out Maria to tell her what had happened to her father.

You could map the march of fascism across Europe base on Mercury’s employment rolls.
from Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra

It turns out that 1940s Hollywood is the perfect venue to look at a multitude of historical realities. Fear of Japanese invasion. The censorship and the Red scare. The America First movement. Racism and the treatment of ‘resident aliens’. Underpaid, invisible women. Tearing down Chinatown to build the train station. Unemployed Bela Lugosi impersonating himself. Actors unable to play their own ethnicity, Maria’s Chinese lover forced to play evil Japanese soldiers. It’s a crazy world, and yet perfectly historic, and unfortunately too recognizable.

In Italy, the antifascists are arrested for crimes they didn’t commit, and here? Here they’re arrested for crimes they’re the victims of.
from Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra

I rooted for the underdog characters, Maria secretly filming a movie starring her Chinese lover as–shocking!–a Chinese man. Artie, perfectly imperfect, standing up to his cold-hearted brother’s takeover of the studio. Nino, who escaped Italy under the assumed identity of a dead man, needing to make amends to the dead man’s mother. The architect whose Nazi German son is at risk of death from the very weapons being tested on her fake desert Berlin city. The vibrant, colorful people who populate the book snatch your heart.

I can’t wait to recommend this book to my book club so I can read it again.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
Well that was freaking stupendous. I laughed, I cried, I marveled at the illustration of man's inhumanity to man. No really, no shade, all those things happened as I read this gorgeous book. And speaking of gorgeous, the prose! Brilliant line after brilliant line. Pretty sure we have book of the
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year locked down.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, come at it blind and delight in its sharp humor and bracing wisdom. It is not all fun and games though, this is a story that perhaps most importantly shines a light on propaganda and on art (which are not diametrically opposing forces.) There is a scene where Maria is watching Triumph of the Will, dissecting Riefenstahl's methods, that is both insightful as hell and also funny. (The image of Maria speeding up the movie , turning off the sound and playing polka music behind it is so evocative.) There are similar scenes that focus on the battle footage, and why reenactments are realer than actual footage that were broadening and meaningful. The book showed me that I have a lot of blind spots about America because I bought into the propaganda perpetuated by educational materials and films and television. You think Germany was the only country that was ruled by a master race philosophy? Uh, no. That it taught me this lesson while making me literally laugh out loud, a lot, is the icing on the cake. There is also a beautiful love story that illustrates how master race theory breaks people down, even people who come from an attitude of joy and how love most certainly does not conquer that force. I should mention that this in not all grand ideas. These are wonderful characters. Marra loves these people, that is clear in every sentence, and as I reader I understood why he loved them. People are ultimately pretty darn lovable, even the not so great ones.

Marra's love of these characters leads me to my one complaint (it did not cost a full star but it is not nothing either.) This book sprawls a bit too much. The action in Hollywood and the action in Italy did not fully come together. There were so many characters that it got confusing. If I were Mara I would have cut a couple of minor digressions. The storyline about a miniaturist/architect named Anna seemed a bit tacked on to me and I thought her story would have been more impactful if it had been shaved down a good deal. There is a story about a detective in Italy who is guided by his love of Sherlock Holmes and of his cat that was funny and independently delightful but not essential and its inclusion made the Italy scenes more convoluted and less effective. I would not have minded the digressions, as mentioned they are well-written and entertaining, but they did not merit all the space and detail they got and their inclusion made the story a little too circuitous. Again though, its a minor quibble. I truly enjoyed this book.
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LibraryThing member techeditor
Anthony Marra‘s A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA was so wonderful that I read his second book, THE TSAR OF LOVE AND TECHNO, without bothering to first read its reviews. So I was disappointed; it did not measure up to CONSTELLATION. Still, when his most recent book, MERCURY PICTURES PRESENTS,
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came out, I bought it. And, again, it doesn’t measure up to CONSTELLATION “Fool me twice, shame on me."

If you want to read MERCURY PICTURES PRESENTS because you loved CONSTELLATION, be warned that you will be disappointed.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“No one truly touched by reality believes it worth honoring. What monster or dullard provisioned with Hollywood’s godly powers would reproduce life as it was, without revision or redemption?”

“The compact opulence of her build was downright subversive in this city of willowy starlets. She
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was Rubenesque, and, like both painter and deli snadwich, irrefutable proof of Creation’s genius.”

At the center of this story, is Maria Lagana, who left Rome and arrived in LA, as a child. It was the early 1900s and over the next 15 years, through her drive and determination she rose through the ranks in a small Hollywood studio, called Mercury Pictures. This is one part of the tale, there are many other threads to follow, both in Italy, at the rise of the Third Reich and back in LA, as movies moved from the silent era to sound. Marra is a master wordsmith and I love his writing. The novel meanders a bit in the final third, taking a few narrative detours, that I found unnecessary but overall, it was a fine read and I am glad to see Marra back after a long hiatus.
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
A very good story laced with humor and humanity.
LibraryThing member EllenH
Actually somewhere between I liked it and it was a slog at times. While the stories were took way too long to set it all up and get on with it. I see people thought the author was a beautiful wordsmith, maybe so and I'm not appreciating it or maybe it wasn't my kind of
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book. Why did I finish it? The stories were interesting and I wondered if they were based on fact, and I wanted to know how the story worked out.
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LibraryThing member TimBazzett
Anthony Marra's MERCURY PICTURES PRESENTS was not quite what I expected, but it succeeds pretty well as a look at various "home fronts" of the Second World War. There is a detailed and nuanced look at Mussolini's Italy in the years before and during the war, with Maria Lagana, who, together with
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her mother, escapes to America, leaving, her father, Giuseppe, behind in a detention camp, a political prisoner because of her unintentional 'betrayal.' Then we have parallel stories of Maria and her mother's new life in Los Angeles, living with a trio of eccentric aunts, and her father's life in Italy. And then there is the Mercury Pictures 'family,' where Maria works as special assistant to Artie Feldman, who, together with his brother Ned (think Warner Bros), owns the whole operation, which is struggling and debt-ridden. Another Mercury employee is Anna Webber, a German refugee 'miniaturist' with a complicated backstory of her own. And there is the young photographer, Vincent/Nino, another Italian refugee, who has connections to Giuseppe (a long story in itself). Oh, and the Italian police officer with terminal cancer, who was instrumental in Vincent's escape (another long story). Los Angeles and the motion picture biz figure prominently throughout the story. Oh, and there's Dugway Proving Ground, where Anna journeys with other experts to construct exact replicas of Berlin neighborhoods so the Army can test dropping incendiary bombs to create fire storms that would totally obliterate targets. (Think Dresden, as described in Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE.) And oh, Bela Lugosi has an extended cameo too. And, oh, never mind ...

Here's the thing. Although beautifully written, there are simply too many stories going on here, too many
characters, too many backstories and time shifts (some decades forward), that I felt I needed a scorecard, or at least a printed cast of characters. It's obvious that Marra has done voluminous research, but did he have to use it all in one book? Because, in the end, it just didn't all hang together that well. Over 400 pages of Italy in the war years, Hollywood history, refugees and displaced persons, misery and heartache, fascists, communists and Congressional hearings, racism and internment camps. Whew! Maybe all just a little too much. That said, I'll still recommend it for its fine writing. And I may have to check out his earlier novel, the one set in Chechnya. Sounds most intriguing.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This is the 2nd novel and 3rd book(short stories) that I have read by Anthony Marra. He can flat out write. He writes interesting stories about important topics and does it with beautiful writing and interesting characters. The books centers on Hollywood during the late 30's and through World War
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II. It shows the importance of pictures in peoples lives and how they were used by the governments(both us and the Germans) to shape the war narratives. This is a sprawling novel with lots of intersecting stories. It deals with the immigrant story(immigrants that ended up in the movie industry) and how we treated Italian, Japanese, and German American citizens during the war. I enjoyed the many issues that Marra brought up that caused me to look it up to make sure that they were historically accurate. There are many stories going on here and Marra devoted too much time to certain characters that weren't central but this is a minor point. All in all this is a great book by one of our best authors.
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LibraryThing member sleahey
With the backdrop of the European turmoil leading up to World War II, and the film industry of the 1940's, Marra has written a complex novel about family, politics, loyalty, betrayal, and greed. There are several key characters, with chapters devoted to each, but the focal one is Maria. She spent
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her childhood in a small town in Italy and all was happy until her defense lawyer father was arrested for his inflammatory writings critical of Mussolini's government. Maria's journey brought her to Los Angeles, where her adulthood revolved around her work for a minor studio making B level films. But it is not just Maria's story, because her family members, childhood friends, co-workers and boss, and boyfriend are thoroughly introduced, not only in the context of their relationships to Maria, but also as they are affected by indignities, hypocrisies, cruelties, and dangers of the workplace, government, and culture of the times. The characters' personalities and the inside look at the 40's film industry propel the story along, and the issues raised are certainly relevant today, providing much food for thought. I relished some of Marra's stunning turns of phrase.
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LibraryThing member lisapeet
Sprawling, cleverly wordy, and fun, the book treks from Italy to Hollywood during the U.S.'s leadup and then involvement in WWII. There's a lot going on, but Marra does a good job moving the story along. There's a lot of good insider baseball (not literally—there's no baseball) that keeps it
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fantastic but believable, including—but not limited to—a hyperrealistic model of six blocks of 1940s Berlin built in the Utah desert to test incendiary devices.
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LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
A bit jumbled; good funny lines, but inever could learn about the main characters.
LibraryThing member muddyboy
A vast and intricately drawn novel with a plethora of well developed characters. Mercury Studio pumps out lots of B movies but struggles financially. It is owned by brothers who have little in common and there is ongoing tension there. There are many other characters connected to the studio with
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interesting side stories going back to when their families lived in Europe both before and during World War Two. One interesting character is an Asian American and his strugles in the movie industry. An old style epic novel.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
Starting in Hollywood before WWII, the story starts in the offices of Mercury pictures where Maria Lagana is the secretary for Artie, the owner along with his twin brother Ned. Artie runs the day to day operation of producing B grade movies and Ned is in New York handling the financing; the
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brothers are as opposite as can be. Maria is an emigrant from Italy coming to American with her mother who left her left-wing lawyer husband there. Maria's father is imprisoned by the fascists. Then the story jumps to Italy and involves a whole new cast of characters (Probably a bit too many characters to keep track of overall). We see the circumstances in which a young photographer, Nino Picone, is helped by Maria's father to escape using a passport of a dead friend. Nino arrives in American under the name of Vincent Cortese and eventually finds Maria who blames him for leaving her father. As a photographer, Nino finds work at Mercury Studios which is now working with the government making propaganda films. Maria, meanwhile, is still doing much of Artie's work without credit and is living with an Asian man, Eddie Lu who is working as a bit player usually playing the bad guy especially after Pearl Harbor.

The story is funny in places, touching in places, and provides an interesting look at Hollywood during this time when so many emigrants from Europe found themselves working there.

There are times that I find the sentence structure and the allusions difficult to understand and there are way too many plot lines to keep track of: Hollywood, Maria's ambition and family issues, Eddie Lu's struggle, the father's struggle in Italy, Nino's story as a new person in US, and even the story of a minor policeman in Italy. Still, good read.
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LibraryThing member Romonko
This is truly a remarkable story about human survival and resilience. The book is deep, complex, and compelling, It is set during the time of WWII, and the story unfolds in Italy and in California. It was remarkably enlightening for me as I wasn't aware of the effect that the United States entering
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the war after Pearl Harbour had on the people in their own country who had emigrated from war-torn Europe. The book is a story about two very strong women who are immigrants in California. Maria at twelve years old, and her mother fled Italy, leaving her father behind because he was being held in confinement in Italy because of his writings about the takeover of Mussolini in Italy. When she turns eighteen, Maria finds herself a job working for a small movie production company, and through hard work and determination, works her way up be the right hand person of the man who runs the movie company. After Pearl Harbour is bombed, Maria finds herself considered to be an enemy alien in California because America was now at war with Italy, Germany and Japan. All sorts of ethnicities became enemy aliens for the remainder of the war. Maria and her remarkable mother find ways to exist, even after the restrictions came into effect. The story goes deeply into family relations--between mother and daughter, father and daughter, and alienated brothers. The story slips back and forth between California and Italy, where Maria's father remains under seclusion. The book swept back and forth among conflicting emotions, moods and political confrontations. Maria and her mother's indomitable spirits help to carry the women and their family of emigres through some very trying times. Along the way we meet some very compelling characters. There is Maria's eccentric boss at Mercury Pictures. There is Maria's lover, Eddie Wu who is a bit-part actor in Mercury Pictures, and an ex-Nazi woman who was a skilled miniaturist in Germany and who now works as a miniaturist in the movie industry, and a fellow emigre who lived with Maria's father after his wife and daughter had to flee from Italy and who finds Maria when he too emigrates to safety. This is a wonderful story of resilience and hope, even through the most trying of times. Highly recommend.
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LibraryThing member kcshankd
Big, fun book. Traces Italian immigrants, German Socialists, rise of German and Italian fascism through the eyes of a cut-rate Hollywood studio.

One of the rare 400 pagers that I didn't want to end, excellently done.
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
Mercury Pictures Presents, Anthony Marra, author; Carlotta Brendan, narrator
Those who seek freedom are often faced with obstacles so great that they have to compromise their values to survive. Guilt and innocence, right and wrong, good and evil, truth and lies, often seem to occupy the same space,
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separated by an almost imperceptible thin line.
The novel takes place over several decades covering fascism, antisemitism, McCarthyism, Communism and any other "ism" that raised its ugly head, during the period. It was the time of heroes and villains, FDR, Il Duce, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Hirohito, all viewed alternately as heroes and villains depending on who was looking and what side they were on.
The main characters in this book all struggled to find their place in life. Artie Feldman, a Jew, was co-founder of Mercury Pictures. He was outgoing, but misjudged the true nature of some people, especially his own twin brother and partner, Ned. The Holocaust caused him great anxiety. His long-time secretary/production assistant was Maria Lagana, originally from Italy. Her well-intentioned choice backfired, causing her to carry guilt for years. She and her mother fled Italy and came to America, while her father was exiled to Calabria by Mussolini's oppressive policies. Her error in judgement, though well-intentioned, damned them. Eventually, they were designated as enemy aliens because of their backgrounds when Mussolini aligned with Hitler. Eddie Lu, A Chinese American, is forced to play bit parts or that of a villain because of his ethnicity. He and Maria are secret lovers because of laws about race mixing. He wears a pin advertising his Chinese, not Japanese, heritage. Vincent Cortese/Nino Picone, is also an enemy alien, but he has valuable assets so is allowed more freedom, although he is also an illegal alien. If a crime is not discovered or acknowledged, is it a crime?
There are so many characters and themes introduced, it often becomes confusing, but the main ideas about how close good and evil are, depending on who is in charge, had the greatest effect on my thinking. Is the righteousness of a behavior dependent on who the aggressor is, and how well thought of he is, or is it dependent on the laws of ethics and morality. Are the Ten Commandments meaningless or meaningful? Is ethical behavior determined by its ultimate goal? So many different philosophies were explored. Is there really so great a difference between the crime of a Concentration Camp and the creation of an Internment Camp for the Japanese during WWII. Yes, one was a killing field, and that was far worse, but both were designed as prison camps for innocent people, punished for their background, not their deeds. Of course, one was far more heinous than the other, but both were considered necessary evils by the men in charge; in one instance it was Hitler, and in the other, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. One is considered evil incarnate and one the quintessential hero of democracy. Does the means justify the end depending on the person pursuing it. Was Hirohito more wrong when he bombed Pearl Harbor or Truman when he bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Both claimed so many innocent lives. Did the means justify the ends? Are their differing opinions for all these questions? Is only one correct because of circumstances or who is calling the shots? Is there room for compromise?
Ned Feldman wanted to usurp control of Mercury Pictures and so he betrayed his twin brother, making him a multi-millionaire in the process. Maria believes she betrayed her father, hoping to save him. Nino betrayed the woman who raised him to save himself when her own son died. Eddie betrayed Mercury Pictures and simply walked out, mid-production to develop himself. Is survival the most important goal? Is the living, or how one lives, more important?
Who are the heroes of this book? Is it Artie and Maria for having the courage of their convictions or were they simply more successful in reaching their end-goals? Whose behavior was more righteous, Nino Picone, Ned Feldman, Vedette Clement or Maria Lagana’s? Vedette betrayed those she had befriended, to advance herself. Does it matter if her victims were guilty as charged, and she was innocent except for her actions? All were devious and betrayed others, but was their purpose what defined them or their behavior?
Was it more heinous to intern people because they might be enemy agents or because of their religion or sexual proclivity or mental acuity? Was it only more heinous in one place because of its ultimate goal and barbarism? Both trapped innocent people. Should the Japanese have been classified as enemy agents simply because of their ethnicity, after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor? Should American Germans have been considered enemy agents because we were at war with Germany? Weren't the Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and the mentally infirm as worthy as the Aryans?
Are we now, in America, experiencing the same kind of conflicting philosophies with our politics of cancel culture, safe spaces for some, persecution of others simply for having different opinions and ideas, like medical doctors. Many were maligned for disagreeing with Covid 19 treatment. They were ridiculed and ostracized. What about the treatment of former President Trump and his family because of their contradictory beliefs about an election, or their use of documents for which others have not been condemned? Do the reigning politicians have the right to silence their opposition? Other former politicians have escaped even the idea of criticism, for worse behavior, like Hillary Clinton and her smashed phones and bit-bleached computers, like Obama holding onto classified documents long after they should have been returned, like Biden illegally having classified documents and lying about knowing about his son Hunter’s influence peddling while accusing and punishing the innocent for his own crimes of bribery? Should only one political party have the right to speak because they are in control and decide that is the way to maintain power?
Were the riots of 2020 mostly peaceful? Was January 6th an insurrection because those in power simply decided to define one instance in one way, and one in another, for what seems like political advantage, withholding all of the evidence and facts for that very purpose? Are we asleep at the wheel, committing the same errors in judgment over and over? These are the thoughts I had after reading the novel. The novel rambled a bit, so I may, as well, but in the end, the main philosophy was clear. The judgment is often in the eyes of the beholder, regardless of its truth. I wondered, are we marching in place? Have we learned nothing from history about peaceful coexistence?
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
Sweeping story that takes the reader from Italy to Hollywood in the 1940s, while exploring the many ways immigrants were penalized during WWII due to xenophobia. It begins in Italy where protagonist Maria Lagana is a young girl. Her father is a lawyer defending citizens against outlandish
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accusations brought by the fascist government. Due to Maria’s youthful error in judgment, her father is arrested and confined on an island. She and her mother emigrate to the US, where they live with her aunts. She gets a job with Mercury Pictures, a second-tier film studio, and eventually ends up in a production role working with Artie Feldman, the studio head.

We learn of her relationship with Chinese American actor Eddie Lu, friendship with an Italian immigrant with ties to her father, and a German emigree hired by the studio. Artie must travel to Washington DC to be questioned by the Senate Investigation into Motion Picture War Propaganda. Themes include the abuses of authoritarianism, the biases introduced through propaganda (and how readily it is believed), and how innocent people are harmed in the process. It is about human connections, figuring out one’s path in the face of systemic discrimination, and the power of forgiveness.

Marra addresses these themes through a series of interrelated storylines. He inserts a good dose of humor along the way. There does not seem to be a main narrative arc. It is more a compilation of side stories that, taken together, form a picture of the social milieu of the time period. It is much different than other books I have read by Anthony Marra. It is certainly relevant to today’s world where so many people seem willing to accept disinformation as the “truth.” It is an enjoyable mix of historical storytelling, entertainment, and social commentary.
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LibraryThing member Dorritt
This is the most satisfying thing I’ve read in a long time. It’s simultaneously funny and heartbreaking, authentic and quixotic, intelligent, absorbing, and masterfully written.

Ostensibly the story is about Maria, a plucky Italian emigree who, as WW2 erupts across Europe, flees Fascist Italy
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and a haunting, horrible mistake to make a new life in America as the assistant to the head of Mercury Studios, a struggling Hollywood filmmaking company. In truth, however, this book is no more about Maria than it is about the constellation of splendidly realized “bit players” who orbit her: eccentric movie studio bosses and washed up actors, wisecracking emigrees and meddling Italian relatives, beleaguered bureaucrats and ambitious blond secretaries, sentimental prostitutes, mourning mothers, doomed idealists, and racketeers with hearts of gold - characters whose stories, in Marra’s deft hands, are fully as complex and riveting and emotional as the central narrative that binds them together.

If you’re looking for something that will keep your book club talking late into the night, this novel provides plentiful fodder for discussion: the ways in which both Hollywood and the novel’s large cast of emigrees reinvent reality from discarded scraps of the past; the Faustian bargains that so many characters are forced to make in order to protect themselves, their values, or the people they love; the abundant ironies and idiocies of war; the difficulties of making peace with injustice and fate and our own mistakes. Marra’s writing may be empathetic, but it’s also penetrating and perspicuous.

If you’re fascinated by authentic historical detail about Hollywood in its infancy, if you enjoy your heartbreak with a side of incisive humor, if you admire characters who endure hardship with resiliency, grace, and decency, then you're in for a treat. My only regret is that I’ll now have to wait a while before being able to justify re-reading this; but at least that gives me time to explore some of Marra’s other novels in the meantime.
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0451495209 / 9780451495204
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