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Book Review: Misfit by Adam Braver

Misfit by Adam Braver (Tin House Books; 304 pages; $15.95).

 

            Marilyn Monroe was not born; she was the creation of both Norma Jean Baker and Hollywood.  Marilyn became one of the most iconic figures of all time yet possessed a fragile, insecure psyche.  Adam Braver’s novel Misfit explores key moments of Marilyn’s past and how they shaped her and, ultimately, how they destroyed her.  Braver’s story is a character study of the twentieth century’s most prolific sex symbol who saw herself as a misfit.  Braver shows that Marilyn should have won Best Actress for starring in the role of a lifetime—playing Marilyn Monroe.

 

Misfit, Braver says, “should not be read as a biography, or as a record of actual events.”  Instead, it is a work of fiction, “meant to examine a struggle for identity in a very public world, and the rewards and pitfalls of conforming to meet others’ expectations.”

Braver concentrates on the last weekend of Marilyn’s life: the two days she spent at Frank Sinatra’s resort on the border between California and Nevada, the Cal Neva Lodge.  In a series of flashbacks, Braver illustrates the moments that defined her.  His novel combines fact with fiction to help us better understand both the woman and the myth.

 

Even as a young girl, Braver maintains, Norma Jean felt like a misfit.  After her mentally unstable mother, Gladys, was institutionalized, Norma Jean was passed around from relative to relative and from orphanage to orphanage.  Sexual abuse occurred at a young age.  Norma Jean clung to the image of Clark Gable, an ideal man, surely a gentleman.  But Gable was a fantasy.  No wonder that she married twenty-one-year-old aircraft plant worker Jim Dougherty at the tender age of sixteen.  Norma Jean longed for a distraction, and she thought marriage to Jim could provide a means to escape her life.

 

While married to Jim, Norma Jean first slipped into the role of Marilyn Monroe.  In 1945, Norma Jean worked at Timm Aircraft plant at Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys, California.  Norma Jean is so desperate to be liked and to be noticed that when she tells her fellow workers, mostly women, about herself, “her stories don’t always match.”  At the plant, she does not stand out.  She is just another woman working outside the home to support the war effort.

 

One day, though, her life changes.  Captain Ronald Reagan arranges for a spread of pretty girls working on airplane fuselages to appear in Yank magazine.  “That kind of story is sure to raise morale.”  The photographer, a young army private, starts snapping photographs of the women.  He gets to Norma Jean.

 

“Then,” Braver writes, “something curious happens.  The private snaps a photo of her.  And then he snaps another.”  He is transfixed by her.  “Not only does he stop moving down the line, it’s as though he’s been walled off.  He drops his bag to the floor and kicks it forward; his legs go into a horseback-riding stance, and he brings the camera up to his face with both hands and starts clicking.”  He takes “one picture after the next.”

 

Under the photographer’s attention, Norma Jean becomes someone else.  “It’s like her bones have settled into something more solid,” Braver writes.  “Her walk is poised.”  The male workers “take notice like something around her is all sexed up.”  The little girl look vanishes, “leaving a womanly confidence that is at once stunning, alluring, and a little frightening.”  It is as if Norma Jean has “grown a little larger.”  Those around her stare.  Norma Jean is not Norma Jean anymore.  She has become Marilyn Monroe.

 

And so it began.  Later, more and more photos appeared in magazines.  She eventually divorced Jim and went on to make movies.  Marriages and divorces to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller soon followed.  Both men had an image of her that she just could not live up to.  DiMaggio wanted her to be a housewife and perhaps mother.  Miller wanted her to be an intellectual.  She tried and moved to New York with him.  Marilyn studied at the Actors Studio, but she still felt objectified and inadequate.  In her eyes, she was always less than.

 

In Braver’s story, we see the enormous amount of work it took for Marilyn to be Marilyn.  She could be anything or anybody, but her role took preparation.  Often, she did what she thought people expected her to do.  For example, while filming The Misfits, the movie Miller wrote for Marilyn, she was late for scenes.  She was also popping pills.  She played the diva, but it was not a natural role for her.  She spent most of her time not preparing for her parts in films but preparing for her role as Marilyn.  Sometimes it was frustrating for her, especially when the men in her life wanted her to be someone she did not want to be.

 

The most dependable man in Marilyn’s life, Braver implies, was Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra accepted Marilyn for who she was.  As Braver writes, Sinatra was the “one solid thing for her.”  If you are hoping to find a flashback that explores Marilyn’s relationship with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy, you will be disappointed.  Braver avoids mentioning any kind of relationship between Marilyn and the Kennedy brothers in Misfit, which is a real shame.  While such allegations can be controversial, ignoring them leaves a hole in this novel.  The Kennedy brothers, surely, shaped her just as much as the other men in her life.  Braver seems to be avoiding controversy by ignoring this subject.  Their inclusion would have made a good book an even better one.

 

During that weekend, Sinatra saw how fragile Marilyn was.  He ordered her to “pack her bags and go home.”  But even he could see she was spiraling out of control from alcohol and drugs.

 

The weekend she spent at Sinatra’s resort was the last weekend of her life.  On August 5, 1962, Marilyn was found dead, naked in her bed, by her psychiatrist.  The coroner ruled it a probable suicide.  In the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, Sharon Tate played the pill-popping actress Jennifer North.  Upon learning she has breast cancer, Jennifer overdoses on sleeping pills.  Before she dies, Jennifer says bitterly, “All I have is a body.”  Marilyn could relate.

 

As Braver writes, the embalming fluid caused Marilyn’s breast tissue to deflate, making her chest “flat as a twelve-year-old boy.”  Mary, a co-owner of the mortuary where her body rests, is horrified.  “I can’t send her out like this,” Mary cries.  “Not in front of Mr. DiMaggio.  Or her family.”  So Mary sets out to recreate Marilyn Monroe.  She gathers all the cotton she can find from the supply cabinet and fills Marilyn’s bosom with handfuls of cotton.  “Now that looks like Marilyn Monroe,” Mary affirms.  The embalmer initially thought it would make her body look freakish, but he is astounded as the cotton “makes her look strangely more lifelike…”  The embalmer cannot help but think of DiMaggio and how he will feel as he looks at Marilyn for the last time.

 

DiMaggio, the embalmer believes, will be pleased with how good Marilyn looks.  He thinks of what will go through former baseball star’s head as he looks at his former wife.  DiMaggio, the embalmer thinks, will blame her death on Hollywood.  He “can’t help but suspect that this version of her actually is the one Mr. DiMaggio wants to remember, and that has got to be a killer because it means he, Joe DiMaggio, is a part of it too.”

 

At the end, Marilyn is just a body.  To a lot of people, though, that is all she ever was.  But Marilyn was much more complicated than that.  Fact or fiction or something in between, Braver’s Misfit is fascinating.  When Marilyn exits stage left, you will be on your feet shouting “Bravo!”

 

 

 

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Finding Your Own Starboard Sea

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont (St. Martin’s Press; 320 pages; $24.99).

            On the surface, Amber Dermont’s debut novel The Starboard Sea may seem superficial.  It is about a teenager from a wealthy family and his boarding school.  What problems could a teen named Jason Prosper have anyway?  Yet Dermont’s plot-driven story has great depth and deeper meaning as she transports readers back to the 1980s and provides us lots of teen angst along the way.  But The Starboard Sea is no John Hughes-type of tale; The Starboard Sea is intelligent, dark, and riveting.

In Jason Prosper’s world, appearances matter.  Why tell the truth when a lie sounds so much better?  It comes as no surprise that Jason has few role models in his life.  Jason, the scion of a wealthy New England family, watches the Iran-Contra hearings with his mother in the summer of 1987.  At seventeen, he has already learned that no one, not even the president, tells the truth.  Everyone has secrets; everyone tells lies—even his parents.  Jason’s mother dons different wigs in an attempt to disguise herself and catch her husband cheating.  She does not believe her husband is faithful.  It is important to point out that the country is on the brink of a stock market crash all because of overvaluing and devaluing the market.  Dermont writes in such a way that deception lurks on every page of this novel.  The reader must understand the deceit that abounds throughout the story before she can then appreciate Jason’s character.  Dermont’s Jason is a product of everything that happens around him.  Because of his elders who constantly drift to and fro with their inconsistencies, Jason is adrift; he is in danger of going under.

In addition to misleading authority figures, Jason’s world also includes “fake cousins” and John Singer Sargent portraits.  Jason and his family are so close with some friends that they have become a kind of quasi-family, even though they are not related.  In his family’s New York City apartment, a Sargent portrait of his great-great-grandmother hangs on the wall.  Not even the portrait is a true conceptualization of his ancestor: “Sargent was notorious for making rich people more attractive than they actually were, and my great-great-grandmother was no exception.”  Sargent airbrushed her into something she was most definitely not–a great beauty.

With all I have mentioned previously, it is quite understandable that this kid, whom his father calls “damaged goods,” carries a lot of baggage.  Most pressing to Jason, though, is the death of his best friend.  It was a suicide, and Jason was first to find the body.  After Cal’s death, Jason enters Bellingham Academy, “island of misfit toys” and place of second chances. 

Bellingham, in itself, is quite intriguing.  The boarding school is located in the town of Bellinghem, Massachusetts.  The founders of the academy think Bellingham simply looks “better on the letterhead.”  Dermont uses this to show yet another example of how Jason is surrounded only by facades.  Very little is real.  Dermont gives us a setting so real and so believable.  She takes her time drawing us into the world she has created.  She sets up the story well.

With all his baggage and heartache, Jason is a very tragic figure.  Cal’s death leaves him reeling.  The two had known each other since they were four and were on the sailing team together.  They won many trophies on the water.  Even at Bellingham, Jason cannot forget Cal.  “Even wet shoes” remind him of his deceased friend.  Jason tries out for the school’s sailing team, but a mishap occurs.  Jason saves the youth but decides to forego sailing without Cal.

At Bellingham, he feels lonely but soon meets someone to fill the void in his life.  He is drawn to a curious and beautiful girl at Bellingham named Aidan.   She owns shoes that she claims were owned by Fred Astaire.  Aidan is a murky figure.  Some things that she says seem less than truthful.  In my opinion, Aidan is Dermont’s most intriguing character.  Aidan’s father may or may not be Robert Mitchum.  Her mother, Aidan swears, is the inspiration for the Eagles’ song Hotel California.

Not surprisingly, Jason falls in love with Aidan.  Soon, all he thinks about are Cal and Aidan, Aidan and Cal.  Dermont, though, brings in a game-changer.  In a nod to the man versus nature conflict, Dermont orchestrates the landfall of a major hurricane on the town of Bellinghem.  The storm devastates both the town and the academy, leaving Jason to contend with yet another loss.

Since accidents and deaths follow Jason, he often thinks of Jessica McClure.  McClure was the toddler who, at eighteen months of age, fell into a well in the backyard of her Midland, Texas, home on October 14, 1987.  After 58 hours, she was saved.  Baby Jessica was saved.  Dermont adds this element to the story to underscore how lost Jason feels.  Jason cannot help but wonder who will save him.  He feels he is drowning but sees no life raft.  Where is his rescue crew to pull him from his abyss?

Because Jason loves the water, Dermont uses ocean motifs throughout her tale.  She is especially fond of sailing metaphors.  This, surprisingly, never grows tiresome and strengthens the narrative.  Her passages are visually stunning.  I want to share some of my favorites.  When Jason sees Bellingham for the first time: “The entire school appeared to float on water, like a life raft.  I felt weightless.  The rhythm of the waves reminded me of naval hymns, of songs about peril and rescue.”  To describe himself after Cal’s death, Jason reveals, “Since Cal’s death, I’d developed a nasty habit of capsizing.”  To describe the hurricane’s devastation, Dermont writes: “Poseidon had struck his trident, summoning his flood, turning Bellingham into a temporary Atlantis.”

Even the novel’s title is a nod to Dermont’s sailing metaphors.  The “starboard sea” means “the right sea, the true sea, or like finding the best path in life.”  In writing this novel, Dermont has truly discovered her own starboard sea.  I hope she does not stray from this, her right path, her own starboard sea.

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