Friday, December 26, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar

With just a few days to spare, I’m finishing up my last 2014 challenge, the TBR pile challenge. A couple years ago I won a copy of Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar. I was excited to win. The book sounded wonderful. Nevertheless, it has been sitting on my shelf ever since. It wasn’t until reading Vanessa and her Sister by the same author that my attention was brought back to the book. So I chose it to finish up my challenge.

The actress is Nell Gwyn, the famous mistress of King Charles II of England. Nell (Ellen) is the younger of two daughters being brought up by an alcoholic mother in an impoverished home. Her father died when she was young. Nell and her sister, Rose, help to keep the household afloat by selling oysters–but that isn’t enough. When Rose is fourteen, she joins her mother’s trade, prostitution. Ellen is determined not to follow the same path. Luck is with her. She is offered a job selling oranges in the Theatre Royal.

Ellen is so full of fun, so natural, and so good-natured, that everyone takes to her at once. It isn’t long before she becomes a favorite of the acting troop. They discover she can dance and sing. She is taken under the wing of the leads and trained up to be an actress herself. She also becomes the mistress of one of the men.

Ellen is safe, secure, and loves being on stage. But she yearns for more. She wants love, and although she cares for the man who keeps her, she doesn’t love him.

As Ellen becomes well known as a stage personality, her path crosses that of the king, first by chance and then by design. King Charles has a wife and a string of mistresses, but when he meets Ellen, he finds her uniqueness irresistible. The attraction is mutual.

This novel is told partially in journal format from Ellen’s point of view and partly as a collection of letters, playbills, and scandal sheets. It’s a formula that works well for Parmar, allowing the intimacy of Ellen/Nell Gwyn’s first person account as well as a view from outside looking in.

Ellen is not particularly interested in the politics of the day, but discussions go on around her so there is enough historical context to add weight to the love story. London experiences a plague and the great fire during Charles’ reign, to significant dramatic effect.

Ellen is a likeable character. In fact, the book is filled with likeable characters. Even the antagonists are pretty mild and don’t affect/threaten Ellen much because she has so much support. She is presented as so consistently beloved, a stage presence that sparkled, the life of every party, so charismatic, that she made no enemies. Everyone loved her. Whether realistic or not, the novel presents her life as fascinating and surrounds her with so many interesting friends that I was caught up in the whirlwind as well.

I’m a big fan of Priya Parmar’s work and look forward to her next book. I won’t let it sit so long on my shelf.

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