Thursday, July 14, 2011

Book Review: Exit the Actress

When spring turns to summer, and my daily uniform becomes shorts, tees and sandals, my reading tastes get really light and airy as well. This is my “Calgon” reading time: Books, take me away! Give me a regency romance, a comedy, even some contemporary chick lit, and I’m happy to sit by the pool or under a shady tree, and be transported to another time or place. No heavy commitments, no trauma, no pondering the mysteries of the universe – at least until September rolls around.

Still, I’m fussy enough to want well written, engaging lightness, if you know what I mean. So when Natalie at Coffee and a Book Chick reviewed Priya Parmar’s historical novel Exit the Actress earlier this year, I took her “must-read” recommendation and put it on my summer reading list. So I have to say thank you to her for a really fun summer read.

Exit the Actress is a novelization of the amazing life of Nell Gwynn, the orange-seller-turned-Restoration-actress who eventually became the favorite mistress of Charles II of England. She’s also the “mother” the Dukes of St. Albans, a line of the British peerage that exists to this day, through her son Charles Beauclerk, one of the Stuart kings’ many illegitimate children. It’s a great story, and it’s certainly been told before, in movies, books and on television. But Parmar’s version is different because she styled the largest part of it as a fictional journal. This may seem like a strange idea, since Gwynn’s biographers almost all agree she was illiterate. But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and keep from quibbling, the device offers you a new way to look at an often-studied historical figure. (It’s summer, remember? Go with the flow.)

While I might argue with the liberties Parmar takes with history and the English language (the writing style was far too “modern” considering that the book is supposed to take place in the 17th century), I think overall the diary style of the book made Nell’s life more understandable and accessible. I loved Nell’s openness and bewilderment. But her self-effacing humor, legendary to this day, fails to shine. I’d have to call the book a bit uneven in terms of the writing – I didn’t think the intermittent gossip column entries added much, and I disliked the long periods of time that were uncovered by any information at all. And frankly, for a book about one of the world’s best known courtesans, I’d call it pretty tame – like Parmar felt a need to to sanitize Gwynn’s life to make her more likeable, but I don’t feel it was necessary in the 21st century.

Still, the book grabbed me from page one - Parmar is a writer to watch. Her debut novel is a solid, beachy read. I’d recommend it to lovers of historical fiction and romance, and those who like novels written in the diary style. It won’t change your life, but it will give you an interesting take on a fascinating woman. It may even lead you to seek out some weightier books on the subject when September rolls around!

I think Natalie liked this one even better than I did. If you'd like to read her review, you'll find it here.


  1. This sounds like a book my book club would love.

  2. I've got this one at home -- I should pull out for the summer because I've heard great things about it -- glad to see you had fun with it. Too bad about the tameness -- although I have seen that hist fict has a large following of conservative readers who like 'clean' reads.

  3. The idea of the need to sanitize historic figures, remove the bawdy from lives that were lived does annoy me. It's like the writer is scared of offending anyone that may come across their works, Think of the world missing books like Gargantua & Pantagruel, Don Quixote etc, because they were considered to bawdy. Sorry rant over. Great post.

  4. Historical fiction which is also a beachy read - sounds like an interesting combo! I will have to put this on my TBR - thanks!

  5. I know exactly what you mean by "engaging" lightness. This sounds like this would be perfect for summer. I might even appreciate the sanitation. I guess it depends.

  6. I did love this book! :) I got pulled into the epistolary format and journal entries - for me, it was something new on each page. It was such a clever read, and I can't wait to see what Priya Parmar has next in store! (And thanks for linking over to me, mwah!) :)

  7. @Kathy -- It would definitely give a group lots to discuss.

    @Audra -- I hadn't thought about audience issues, but that may explain the tameness.

    @Parrish -- I have to agree. When I looked for additional information on Nell Gwynn, it seemed like her life was actually far "grittier" than described in the book, but the grit is what makes the story so fantastic in truth!

  8. @Colleen -- It really does clear both hurdles. I recommend it!

    @Shelley -- The sanitation doesn't ruin it, but it does render Nell's accomplishments a bit less incredible.

    @Natalie -- Thanks again for the recommendation!


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