Staff Picks: The Goddess and Marlene

I rarely read just one book at a time, but seldom have the books I'm simultaneously reading melded so well as The Goddess by Kelly Gardiner and Marlene by C.W. Gortner. Entirely by accident, I found myself reading two novels based on the lives of two very similar women: Julie d'Aubigny and Marlene Dietrich. Though one lived in early 18th-century France and the other in 20th-century Germany and America, they were cut from the same cloth.

Julie d'Aubigny, aka Mademoiselle la Maupin, was a cross-dressing, bisexual opera singer who was also one of the best swordfighters of her time. Her love affairs and her duelling made her scandalous, but her breathtaking beauty and gorgeous contralto voice made her the darling of French high society. Goddess is told mostly from her first-person point of view, in the form of a deathbed "confession." She is unrepentantly vain, selfish, and boastful, but somehow still utterly fascinating. 

Marlene Dietrich was a German-born actress, also famous for cross-dressing and bisexuality. Marlene initially intended to fulfill her mother's dream by becoming a concert violinist, but while she was talented, she wasn't quite talented enough to make a living with her violin. She found her calling in the cabarets of Weimar-era Berlin, where she entranced men and women alike in her tuxedo, top hat, and monocle as well as her leg-baring showgirl outfits and sultry singing voice. Her collaboration with famed director Joseph von Sternberg brought her to Hollywood. The novel is best at the beginning and end, floundering just a bit in the middle when Hollywood's glitz and glamour go to Marlene's head and things get a bit melodramatic. I think this Marlene is the one whose image endures, which is rather unfortunate. For example, I didn't know before I read this novel that she performed in more war-torn areas in Europe than any other USO performer during WWII, sticking it out through illness, injury, lice, and a distinct lack of glamour to give the biggest middle finger she could to Hitler and the Nazis, whom she hated for making her country into a monster. This is the image of Marlene I prefer. 

Gortner's Marlene is much more humble than Gardiner's Julie, but I believe they would have enjoyed each other's company immensely. If you like historical fiction and/or stories featuring strong, groundbreaking women, I highly recommend both of these novels.
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