by Anthony Marra
“The money her mother raised bought the false assurances of charlatans. Annunziata knew the bribes were wasted, but when you’re desperate, every open pocket is a wishing well.”
Once, the Laganas were a prosperous family in Rome, and Guiseppe Lagana was a sought-after lawyer who took his daughter to the cinema every Sunday when his wife thought they were at church. But the rise of Mussolini turned their fortunes, first to unemployment, and then eventually to prison. After her father’s arrest, Maria Lagana and her mother join the tide of refugees fleeing the rise of fascism in Italy. They move to California, where three of Annunziata’s aunts live, running an Italian diner well into their cantankerous old age. Maria finds her way into the film industry, determinedly clawing her way up to be the first female executive at her studio. She is just poised to claim her first producer’s credit when Pearl Harbor draws America into the war, and Maria finds herself and enemy alien in her new home.
Anthony Marra’s fascinating second novel follows the emigres and outcasts who make up the war-time staff of Mercury Pictures, a second-rate studio always hovering on the verge of bankruptcy under the rivalrous management of twin brothers Ned and Artie Feldman. Since many of the crew are enemy aliens of German or Italian extraction, they are ineligible for the draft, even as many of their American-born colleagues disappear into the war machine. Together, they are charged with making the propaganda pictures that fuel support for America’s war effort, even as many of them left loved ones behind in Europe, often to unknown fates.
Absent from this group are any Japanese characters, given the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. However, Maria’s boyfriend is Eddie Lu, a Chinese American actor who has been struggling for years to break out of stereotypical bit parts into roles where his talents can really shine. With the onset of war, Eddie is in more demand than ever before—to play simplistic Japanese villains in propaganda films. Eddie has long struggled with the bargain he has made to work in Hollywood as an Asian man, but these propaganda films force a reckoning with his own conscience. Eddie is loosely inspired by Korean American actor Philip Ahn, and his story arc is one of the most poignant aspects of Mercury Pictures Presents.
While the story is set in Hollywood, it is more fundamentally about displacement, about losing one’s place in the world, and struggling—perhaps futilely—to rebuild it. Again and again, characters are asked to make impossible choices or compromises. One minor character in the story is Anna Weber, who makes a terrible sacrifice in order to be able to leave Nazi Germany and escape to America. Once an architect, she finds a job at Mercury Pictures as a miniaturist. When the military comes calling for her services despite her enemy alien status, I realized with dawning horror the real historical military project that Anna was going to be asked to participate in. Marra blends his fictional characters seamlessly with stranger-than-fiction truths, and the evidence of the research that went into this is detailed in his hefty acknowledgements. The result is a richly layered novel that abounds with interesting historical texture, and characters that feel true to life.
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