As a blogger, playwright, and the author of two memoirs (both of which she penned before the age of 30), Rachel Shukert has already proven herself to be one of the most hilarious and talented writers ever, forever. But her upcoming young adult novel, Starstruck, (on sale March 12) is epic and expert in a new way. Like, I'm not sure if you're supposed to immediately admit that the book you're reviewing was nearly perfect, because I've never written a book review before -- and all the ones I've read seem to tease readers with a muted mix of mostly withheld acclaim, synopsis, and stern acknowledgment of how the author failed or could have offered "more" -- but I'm writing this one, so let's put it my way: I loved it. I want to marry it. My copy of it is now covered in peanut butter because everything I can't put down -- including my boyfriend and my phone -- inevitably become coated in peanut butter, which is my favorite food.
Set in 1930s Hollywood, Starstruck follows three teenage starlets orbiting fame. These women have very different personality types. You've got Margaret Frobisher-turned-Margo Sterling, the sweet former debutante struggling to feel something after a life of charm school; Gabby Preston, the tiny and increasingly drug-addicted stage veteran; and Amanda Farraday, formerly Ginger-the-Sex-Worker, the street-wise-sex-pot, who only wears black, knows her sex appeal, and puts most of her acting chops toward being "a good girl" for the man she wants to have sex with. My annotated notes in Starstruck include a lot of awestruck emoticons and doodled hearts -- and some cat stickers to mark good passages when I didn't have a pen -- and, of course, over and over, the hastily scrawled exclamation: "That's a lot of scotch!" because, true enough to 1930s Hollywood, Shukert's male characters seem always to be drinking.
With her knack for sensory detail, Shukert skillfully conjures everything from the bright prison of Republican debutante balls to the back roads of the Dust Bowl to the manicured lawns of wealthy asylums -- all while keeping the glittering artifice of Hollywood front and center. Most importantly, she manages the glamour without sacrificing the humanity of her female characters. These women are ambitious and nurturing, competitive and sensitive -- they both love and hate each other. The result is witty, breathtaking, and a priceless addition to both the young adult and historical genre -- because what better way to explore the hilarious and moving rivalries inherent to any adolescence, during any period, than to set three girls' coming-of-age against the backdrop of the Golden Age, when Hollywood itself was maturing? It feels smart to chronicle the process of starlets finding their voice shortly after the introduction of sound into film.
Oh, and did I mention that the book is hilarious? While reading, I laughed out loud with the intensity and irregularity of a broken cuckoo clock, to the point that my boyfriend finally took the pillow off his face and gently asked if I could put the book away so we could both go to bed because it was three in the morning. Case in point:
Orange Grove Academy for Young Ladies had prided itself on preparing its students for any possible social situation, but the proper mode of decorum for when one had just discovered an unclothed boy in one's pretend boyfriend's bed had been conspicuously absent from the curriculum (250).
'Oh, Dane!' Doris shrieked, peppering the photo with slurping mock kisses. 'I love you! I want to kiss you until our faces melt together and we have only one face!'(43).
Anyone who has read Shukert's prior work will recognize her tactic of using formal language to frame unexpectedly goofy moments. Her writing is mannered, yet fun. But in Starstruck that formality serves not only to induce laughs, but also to further define an already evocative homage to a bygone era -- one that is studded with vintage idioms like, "You musn't mind Wally. He's... Just looking to pitch some woo your way."
Pitch some woo your way? Thank you, Rachel. This phrase makes me want to pitch some woo your way. It also makes me want to invest in a cane and permanently affect a verbal cadence that hybridizes Katherine Hepburn with Jimmy Dean. But I digress.
The language, in other words, is flashy and conspicuous, but in a good way, like the Golden Age itself. Rather than trying to be cinema verite, Starstruck puts the artifice on display and will make you nostalgic for a time you know nothing about. Shukert has painted such a vivid, fictional portrait of the Golden Age that I sort of feel like I understand it now, and I have even caught myself explaining it to people -- kind of like how grown-ups felt they understood teens after watching Juno.
Is this the part where I try, in the most complicated and emotionless way possible, to describe what I've read as a page-turner? -- But without actually calling it a page-turner, because that would maybe be too accessible and I want to be seen as an intellectual? Okay. Starstruck is the kind of transcendent historical novel that will make you put away your iPhone and turn the pages with your nose while you dribble coffee down your shirt and struggle to stay upright on the jangling subway dragging you to work. (Subjective evidence, obviously, but we've already established that I'm not very good at this.) Let's just say it's a page-turner.