Sitting down to read The Actress, Amy Sohn’s newest novel, is even better than standing in line at the grocery store while the person in front of you disputes the price of a carton of orange juice, giving you extra time to read the tabloids. The Actress might be as licentious as a tabloid, but it is far more intelligently written. And, you probably won’t be reading it while standing in line inside a grocery store.
The Actress tells the story of theatre actress, Maddy Freed, who lives and works in New York City with her long-term boyfriend, Dan Ellenberg. Sohn’s book opens at the Mile’s End Film Festival, at the premier of Maddy and Dan’s aptly-titled film, I Used to Know Her. While at the festival, in a Katie Holmes/Tom Cruise twist of fate, Maddy attracts the attention of an older big-time Hollywood actor, Steven Weller, and his publicist, Bridget Ostrow. Before you can say “paparazzi,” Maddy is whisked off to Weller’s palazzo in Venice.
Maddy, who grew up idolizing Steven, becomes totally smitten with him. So smitten, that she turns her back on everything in order to be with him. After a steamy, Italian night of sex, sex, and more sex, Maddy breaks up with Dan (by text!), moves away from New York City (and her friends), and ignores the constant rumors that surround, and have always surrounded Steven, mainly those about him being gay. Maddy and Steven get married so quickly that they put together a postnup rather than a prenup, despite the fact that neither of them can begin to fathom that there would ever be an end to their matrimonial bliss. Sohn writes that “It was a special thing to carry with you the person who made you complete, to take what she gave you and bring it into your work. That was the essence of love.” Steven and Maddy, winded from their whirlwind plunge into love, could not agree more.
Settled into their Hollywood mansion, married life commences. Steven and Maddy continue on with their acting careers, initially supporting and encouraging each other to take on appropriate roles. Under the often creepy tutelage of Bridget, Maddy’s Hollywood acting career begins. She works to earn an admirable reputation, although she often feels insecure and overshadowed by Steven’s fame. Predictably, things quickly sour all over the place. When Steven isn’t expertly making love to Maddy, he is controlling and even a bit mentally abusive when it comes to her acting roles, and her life in general. Acting work often separates Maddy and Steven from each other for long periods of time, and Maddy becomes suspicious of Steven’s whereabouts, and of Bridget’s motives. Just as Maddy realizes that she really has no one to rely on, Steven starts to push her out of not only his super secretive home office, but out of his life.
Once coupled with Steven, it becomes uncomfortably clear that Maddy is a lonely and confused ragdoll of a character. She stands by her man during some trying moments–the circumstances far from noble spousal responsibilities. Maddy goes completely out of her comfort zone several times for Steven, appearing on late-night shows to tastelessly prove that he is not gay. She also stars in a bikini movie role that Steven and Bridget all but force her to take on, despite her meek protests. Marriage has exposed Maddy as a weakling–this person who is fully capable of supporting herself is stifled because her greatest fear is that Steven will leave her.
Maddy searches and searches for peace in her marriage, and is eventually placated by Steven’s ex, Alex. Alex, one of the only wise characters in the novel, tells Maddy that “. . . your problem is the same one we all have. You don’t know if you are truly loved. But does anyone.’” The Actress ends with a big sigh of relief. After an exhaustive downward spiral, Maddy finally declares that she “is a joyous person who has been living joylessly.” It is too bad that the reader cannot reach into the book and shake her back to that reality earlier. But, that’s the way Hollywood works. It is sort of fun to helplessly witness the downfall of celebrities, even fictional ones. Maddy finally manages to end her problems, or actually, her problems are ended for her. Some people are passive until the end—the outcome is the same, the people just come out a little more bruised and battered—it makes for a better story.
Maddy ‘s struggles with her life and her relationship are predictable, and not necessarily unique to living a life of fame. Sohn takes mainstream personality and marriage issues and magnifies them with great detail under a celebrity lens. Maddy is easy to dislike because the reader feels so far removed from her—not only is she a fictional person, she is a celebrity fictional person. Yet paradoxically, it isn’t difficult to relate to her character. Perhaps this is why this book is somewhat addictive. The Actress, at its essence, examines the elusive, worldly enigma that is attraction. Sohn’s writing is far superior to that of any tabloid, she writes this fast-paced novel with perception and intelligence that can be attributed to talent, and also to extensive research. Her acknowledgments mention about a dozen sources of inspiration and influence. Despite this research, The Actress is still as juicy as a tabloid, justly shelving it under the “summer reads” category. Take it to the beach, read it on an airplane—all distractions will be cast aside as you enter your grocery store checkout line tabloid-reading stupor.