Book clubs for the Hollywood elite
By Becky Ohlsen
The first novel by Chandler Burr, New York Times perfume critic and the author of three books of nonfiction, is bound to generate chatter—not only because it features cameos by practically everyone in the New York publishing world (from David Remnick to Claudia Roth Pierpont) and several from Hollywood (Bryan Singer), but also because of the delicate subject at the center of its plot. Narrator Anne Rosenbaum is an immediately fascinating character, sharp-tongued and well read.
She’s an Englishwoman happily married to a Jewish studio executive, Howard Rosenbaum. Anne is mostly isolated from the film world until, one day, someone in the industry asks her to compile a reading list. As things do in Hollywood, this catches on, and soon Anne is leading book clubs of directors and screenwriters from her back garden. Variety profiles her;“Talk of the Town” chimes in, too.
Anne’s unlikely rise to fame drives the book, and Burr has loads of fun with it. The first half of the novel is fast, witty and often hilarious, filled with delight in the power of language. There’s a wonderful dinner-table treatise on the lack of a comma between independent clauses in an article in The New Yorker; these things matter to Anne, and because of that,they begin to matter to others.
What jams up the gears is something that happens when Anne and Howard’s teenage son, Sam, takes a two-week trip to Israel. Anne isn’t Jewish, and so according to Israel neither is Sam; his rejection from a yeshiva throws Howard unexpectedly into crisis. Racial and religious identity, once peripheral, becomes a direct threat to Anne’s marriage. As her husband pulls away, Anne uses the massive and efficient Hollywood gossip machine to communicate with him through the book clubs. Toward the end of the novel....the humor of the first half shifts toward poignancy. But it’s a gentle shift, not jarring, and it serves to underscore Burr’s point: that ideas have more power over our lives than we realize, and that literature is our best hope for finding our way.
—Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.
The Wall Street Journal
Books June 6, 2009
Yaddo in the Land of Yoda
By STEVEN ZEITCHIK
You or Someone Like You
By Chandler Burr
Anne is elegant, British-born and intoxicated with literature. In other words, she is not the sort of person you’d expect to find in Hollywood’s upper echelons, yet there she is, Anne Rosenbaum, née Hammersmith, the wife of movie-studio honcho Howard Rosenbaum.
In Chandler Burr’s ambitious debut novel, “You or Someone Like You,” Anne doesn’t just live in Hollywood’s upper echelons, she reigns over them. A series of her book recommendations, delivered almost casually, creates an unusual literary thirst on the part of many of Hollywood’s most powerful people.
Anne is soon holding court at reading groups in her backyard, offering quotes from Tolstoy, Donne and others to producers, scriptwriters and directors. The novel is sprinkled with references to real-life Hollywood powerbrokers such as Stacey Snider and J.J. Abrams, who offer improbably hyper-literate comments on the books under discussion.
The book club soon turns Anne into a media sensation, even landing her [in] Vanity Fair. And that’s not the only event that disrupts her life. As Anne’s star is rising, the Rosenbaums’ teenage son is expelled from a two-day stay in an Israeli-roots program because his mother is not Jewish.
The expulsion stirs intense, opposing reactions in Anne and Howard: She begins cultivating a resentment toward religious self-definition, while Howard, absorbing the message that his son is not officially Jewish, wonders whether his own parents were right all along about the inadvisability of religious intermarriage.
The growing disagreement over the value of religious identity threatens to shred the marriage. “You or Someone Like You” may be set in Hollywood, but it is a serious book: It suggests the literary scope of Harold Bloom and the thematic concerns of Bernard Malamud.
Similarly, Mr. Burr may be the scent critic for the New York Times, but the ideas he tackles in his novel are hardly airy confections. Not least among them is Anne’s belief that exclusionary ethnic, racial and religious pride can be a form of bigotry. She prefers Auden’s theory of Namelessness, in which racial and religious distinctions are moot.
Anne can be especially caustic, even offensive, about Judaism, implying at times that anti-Semitism is the fault of the Jews themselves. “How convenient and good racialism is when you’re doing it,” she says, “when it’s keeping you a separate, integral, coherent group. How inconvenient and terrible it is when others are doing it to you.”
—Mr. Zeitchik is a senior writer for the Hollywood Reporter.