NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The epic tale of a brilliant woman who must reinvent herself to survive, moving from Mussolini’s Italy to 1940s Los Angeles—a timeless story of love, deceit, and sacrifice from the award-winning author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
“A genuinely moving and life-affirming novel that’s a true joy to read.”—Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere
“A gorgeous book . . . sublime.”—The New York Times (Editors’ Choice)
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: NPR, The Guardian, Booklist
Like many before her, Maria Lagana has come to Hollywood to outrun her past. Born in Rome, where every Sunday her father took her to the cinema instead of church, Maria immigrates with her mother to Los Angeles after a childhood transgression leads to her father’s arrest.
Fifteen years later, on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, Maria is an associate producer at Mercury Pictures, trying to keep her personal and professional lives from falling apart. Her mother won’t speak to her. Her boss, a man of many toupees, has been summoned to Washington by congressional investigators. Her boyfriend, a virtuoso Chinese American actor, can’t escape the studio’s narrow typecasting. And the studio itself, Maria’s only home in exile, teeters on the verge of bankruptcy.
Over the coming months, as the bright lights go dark across Los Angeles, Mercury Pictures becomes a nexus of European émigrés: modernist poets trying their luck as B-movie screenwriters, once-celebrated architects becoming scale-model miniaturists, and refugee actors finding work playing the very villains they fled. While the world descends into war, Maria rises through a maze of conflicting politics, divided loyalties, and jockeying ambitions. But when the arrival of a stranger from her father’s past threatens Maria’s carefully constructed facade, she must finally confront her father’s fate—and her own.
Written with intelligence, wit, and an exhilarating sense of possibility, Mercury Pictures Presents spans many moods and tones, from the heartbreaking to the ecstatic. It is a love letter to life’s bit players, a panorama of an era that casts a long shadow over our own, and a tour de force by a novelist whose work The Washington Post calls “a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles.”
Marra's meticulously crafted latest (after the collection The Tsar of Love and Techno) follows a host of outsiders as they try to make it through pre-WWII Italy and wartime Los Angeles with some of their morals intact. Teenage Maria Lagana and her mother leave Italy for Los Angeles after Fascists exile her father. By 1941, Maria is B-movie producer Artie Feldman's second-in-command. Artie, a toupee-wearing loudmouth with a heart of gold (he'll hire any down on their luck European exile), is at war with the censors, his twin brother/business partner, and the bankers with a stake in Mercury Pictures. Marra skillfully switches between small-town Sicily and a still-small Los Angeles where, post Pearl Harbor, Maria must register as an internal enemy and her Chinese American boyfriend, Eddie, has to flee assailants who are convinced he's a Japanese spy. The plot is intricate: Artie tries to release a political movie and fend off creditors, Maria and Eddie plot to make a film, a Berlin-born model-builder recreates her city, a Sicilian photographer flees Italy. While Marra's pleasure in the details and argot of the past occasionally feels like overkill, this tough-minded, funny outing exemplifies what Maria calls the democratic promise of "the miniaturist's gaze," in which "all were worthy." Thanks to Marra, the pleasure is contagious.
This novel and Anthony Marra’s first, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” are two of the best books I’ve read in my adult life! They’re both literature, rich with topics for a book club or college English class to explore: questions of reality vs. perception, themes of redemption and forgiveness, complex and intimately detailed characters, and the powerful, emotional decisions and connections they make. Plus, Marra’s extensive historical research creates a vivid backdrop of 1940s L.A. and fascist Italy for “Mercury Pictures Presents.” This was a fascinating book that left me truly in awe of the author’s talent.
What an extraordinary writer.