Book Review of “The Only Woman in the Room” by Marie Benedict.
The name Hedy Lamarr might not mean much to many younger people these days, even less so will the name Hedwig Kiesler, with or without the additional names of her many husbands. But Hedy Lamarr was a very popular screen and stage actress in Vienna and later, Hollywood from the 1930s through the 1950s. More importantly, something else you may never have heard of was her invention of spread-spectrum technology for frequency hopping. However, this was a precursor for many things I’m sure you have heard of, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology, as well as GPS. Yes, it is true that a beautiful, glamorous movie star helped invent something that led to things that we use each and every day (not to mention how this same technology has been used by the military with their drones since the Viet Nam War). Unfortunately, almost surely due to the misogyny of the era, her invention went ignored, despite the fact that it could have solved some deadly military problems faced allied forces during WWII. It therefore seems that the story of her life that led to this amazing invention is long overdue, and I’m thrilled that Benedict has done just this in her latest historical, biographical, women’s fiction novel.
Let’s get the niggles out of the way so I can go on to discuss what I loved about this book. The biggest problem I had here was that the novel felt a bit slow in the beginning. While I understand that Benedict wanted to give a side of Hedy that others authors might overlook (which is a good thing), I think she could have cut just a bit of that down. That said, the short period that Hedy was in London seemed to be totally neglected, and my thoughts were that she skipped ahead just a bit too quickly there. Finally, I would have liked just a touch more lead-in to Hedy’s interests in science, since it felt just a touch too sudden. I think she could have heightened Hedy’s interest and talent for science in her youth. This might sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t. See, the whole science and invention part was what I wanted to know the most about, so even though the whole bad marriage and escape from Vienna was good (if not excellent), maybe I was just had slightly different expectations.
This isn’t to say that the book isn’t consistently good, because it really is fascinating from beginning to end. Here’s a woman whose beauty and acting talent were what helped her rise above all the other “wannabes” but who also had so much more inside her than what we saw on screen. This dilemma, Hedy’s inner struggle, being forced into play acting for the public, while underneath she’s so much more – even painfully so, is something on which Benedict really focuses. Undeniably, this is what makes this novel not just a biographical piece of fiction, but also a strong statement about the price to both society and women in general, when they are subjected to recurring and constant misogyny. Everything else almost takes a back seat to this theme, and if you ask me, rightly so. The tragedy of Hedy Lamarr was not her fall from Hollywood’s limelight, her bad marriages, or even her feelings of helplessness in the face of the oncoming world war. No, her real tragedy was that her genius went unrecognized for such a long time, simply because she was a woman.
Usually, this is the part in my review where I talk about the writing style and other aspects of the novel such as character development. As for the latter, there is no question in my mind that Benedict put her heart and soul into successfully molding her fictional version of Lamarr into a living, breathing, believable woman, that perfectly matches (and yet also enormously challenges) the picture we have of Hedy in our minds from her photos and movies. It would therefore only follow that her writing style lent perfect credence to both Hedy and the action included in this story. I already appreciated Benedict’s even-handed use of language from her previous novel “Carnegie’s Maid,” so I was not surprised to find a similar touch with this novel. Mind you, Benedict seemed to add more emotion behind her prose in this novel, possibly because the theme here of the systematic marginalization of women was even closer to her heart than the previous book’s theme of class disparity and the socio-economic gaps between them. So, despite what might have felt like a slightly slow beginning, Benedict’s narrative soon builds dramatically to where we can’t stop reading until the end. Add to this that Benedict brought me to tears at one scene, not because it depicted any amazing success or heartbreaking failure, but because the event epitomized Hedy’s helplessness to gain recognition for who she really was and not what she portrayed to the public, and I was hooked.
The question then is, did what Benedict so effectively achieve here outweigh my above noted niggles enough to earn from me a coveted full five stars? To be absolutely truthful, the more I think about this book – and the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it, even though I’m already well involved in another book already – the more I believe that this novel is almost perfect. If I rated on a 10-star scale, I’d probably want to give it nine and a half stars. Since I don’t have a ¾ star available, I think that I’ll just have to round it up and give her full marks, because I will be warmly recommending this book to as many people as I can.
Sourcebooks Landmark released “The Only Woman in the Room” by Marie Benedict on January 8, 2019. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), used from Better World Books (to promote libraries and world literary) and Alibris, as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a (very last minute) ARC of this novel via NetGalley.