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'Not Without You' takes on the star system

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Not Without You a novel by Harriet Evans

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“Not Without You,” Harriet Evans’ latest offering, digs a little deeper than the usual chick lit.

Here, Evans tells the story of two Hollywood stars, Sophie Sykes – now Sophie Leigh – and Eve Noel, nee Sallis. While Eve was one of the last big stars manufactured by the studio system in the late 1950s, Sophie is a contemporary money-maker who carries studio rom-coms.

Each of the women grew up in England. Sophie, who worships Noel and her films, even lives in the former star’s Hollywood home.

What sets this novel apart is Evans’ clear-eyed look at the way Hollywood creates and crushes its young women stars. Each woman tells her own story in alternating segments. Eve, a self-described “country doctor’s daughter,” is sexually attacked by her studio boss, has her teeth fixed, her hairline altered, and becomes a box-office leader. Why?

I wanted to act, that’s all I’d ever wanted to do. But I know now I did it because my survival instinct is strong. Over the years, I convinced myself it was because I wanted to act. And so it became acceptable for me to do things that I’d never have done before. . .

Despite loving Don, a screenwriter who wrote the script of her most iconic movie, Eve plays the studio game and marries a man she loathes. Her story is complicated, but personal tragedy leads her to leave film and return to England, where she lives in obscurity until Sophie finds her.

Sophie, surrounded by an entourage of agents, trainers, personal assistants, security guards , lives a life devoid of friends and fun. She is determined to break out of the prison of celebrity:

I know why some of them. . . join cults, wear fake pregnancy bellies, marry complete strangers. They’re only trying to distract themselves from how totally nuts being famous is. Because that’s what fame is actually about, these days. Not private jets; diamond tiaras; mansions; and free clothes, handbags, shoes. Fame is actually about how you stay sane. How you don’t lose your mind.

Sophie, who has returned to England to star in an independent time-travel film about Anne Hathaway and Shakespeare, is determined to find the reclusive Eve Noel to and convince her to play a roll in the film. Like the reader, Sophie is intent on unraveling a key mystery to the former star’s disappearance. She solves they mystery, but not without great personal cost.

Evans has deftly punctured the myth of present-day celebrity, while providing a clear-eyed look at the soul-draining excesses of the studio star-making system of an earlier era to show that, sadly, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Happily, Eve and Sophie are both stronger than they think. “I am strong,” Eve realizes as she eventually finds a way to reconnect with Don. “I can pretty much do anything.”

Sophie, too, realizes that her happiness is up to her. “You make it yourself, that happiness, not someone else. It’s up to you. You have to be the one who chooses it,” she’s told by the actor she has been afraid to admit her affection for.

While at times obviously contrived and predictable, “Not Without You” is women’s fiction that delivers more than just romance.

“Not Without You” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.

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