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First Nights

First Nights - Susan Fromberg Schaeffer [Thought I'd repost this review for February, which is Garbo Month by my calendar.]

I love happening upon an obscure title like this (little known, largely unrecognized, and unfortunately remaindered) and finding that it’s a gem and I’m lucky to have got my hands on it. Perhaps not flawless but a gem nonetheless, this one a period piece set in Hollywood’s early glamour days and featuring the life of Anna Asta, the silver screen’s most famous face. At 635 pages it’s about a hundred pages too long (which cost it a star), but my only real complaint is that Schaeffer couldn’t call Anna Asta by her actual professional name, which is Greta Garbo.

Should the premise bring to mind celebrity shlock or genre fiction a la Jackie Collins, I’ll clarify that it is not at all that. It’s an intimate and quiet telling through parallel narrative voices: Anna’s and that of her long-time housekeeper Ivy Cook. Each is an immigrant who left home and family for life in America, Anna from Scandinavia, Ivy from the Caribbean, and each is telling her story at the brink of old age. They’re looking for the same thing from profoundly different perspectives: meaning – as in the meaning of choices made and cards dealt and belonging.

From the cover blurb: “Where Anna’s life seems all glamorous shadows, Ivy appears centered, rooted in the earth . . . Remembering her beloved Green Island of long ago, Ivy speaks of Miss Blue, the ‘story tailor’ who let it be known that people who were unusually unhappy could tell her their stories and she would change those stories for them – take a nip here, a tuck there, until they were made to fit and feel comfortable. Anna Asta and Ivy Cook become story tailors, telling each other their stories, rearranging events, re-evaluating them, until finally – together – they find the one story that lies beneath an apparently patternless chaos.”

Not for everyone, but reading heaven for Garbo fans. The woman had never occurred to me before I spied her in 1986 in New York City, and yes, I know Garbo and Lennon sightings are a dime a dozen in that town, but I really did see her over a table of used books at a Greenwich Village flea market wearing a taupe felt swing coat with matching hat, a startling vision straight out of the collective American subconscious, that’s my Garbo story and I’m sticking to it. Old or no, it’s a face so iconic I recognized it instantly, despite my prior exposure being minimal. I instinctively knew better than to speak to her, and couldn’t have if I’d tried, and I didn’t dare stare, but I followed briefly when she walked away, keeping a reverential distance until she glanced back, and if looks could kill I’d be dead.

That was the beginning of an infatuation with Garbo, and a love of old movies and the artistry of early filmmaking. The chance to get lost in that era through Schaeffer’s First Nights is a pleasure I highly recommend to readers of like mind.

As for Garbo movies, if you're new to her, I suggest watching Anna Christie and Queen Christina first, and if you like silents, Flesh and the Devil is delicious eye candy. Here are some clips to sample from each.

Anna Christie -- opening scene with Marie Dressler, another favorite actress:

Queen Christina: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVP9WA07tJg

Flesh and the Devil: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hr2ehyOz2Ms