Movie buffs, sisters, daughters, mothers, the grown children of sisters—all will hungrily ingest Jackie Townsend’s first novel, Reel Life. The narrative circles the relationship between two sisters, Betty and Jamie, through the upheaval of having their mother move out of the family home until both women are focused on their own families. Asis often the case in real life, there is so much more to their story than sisterly bonds: a selfish, successful mother; a diminished, angry father; terrifying face-downs with disease and death; marital infidelities; career cave-ins; getting what you always wanted; and getting what you never thought you wanted. Through it all, Townsend ties in the movies familiar to a generation. Townsend doesn’t overuse this cinematic theme, she simply employs dead-on chapter titles (“A Star is Born,” “The Exorcist,” “Unforgiven”), and incorporates watching classics like Wizard of Oz, Blue Velvet, Vertigo, Shrek, and The Red Shoes into the unfolding story.
Readers will note that the chapter monikers and the movies that make longer appearances provide clues about the personalities and feelings of Betty, Jamie and sometimes their self-absorbed mother. Watching The Wizard of Oz as a young girl, older sister Betty prefers the dream sequence to the final realism when Jamie gleefully points out which farmhand was represented by the tinman, by the scarecrow and by the lion. Betty, the light-hearted party girl whose glass is half-full literally and figuratively, grows up to prefer rosy thoughts of the future, except when it comes to resolving issues with her mother.
A darker spirit, Jamie finds films by David Lynch and Hitchcock more satisfying. She became disillusioned at a young age, but this enables her to accept life for exactly what it has devolved into, and people for exactly who they are, not what we wish them to be. Afraid to be vulnerable, she struggles always to keep her real self hidden, even from Betty: “For the first time, Jamie seriously tried to remember exactly what words were exchanged between them…How could you remember the truth when everything you’ve said were all lies to begin with?”
Movies are an escape from reality, like when Jamie (watching Primary Colors) observes, “…the conundrum of her brother, their mother, everyone and anyone, became replaced by the more spellbinding conundrum unfolding onscreen.” Yet in Reel Life, the cinematic storylines also reinforce what is happening in the lives of the likable yet substantially flawed characters. When watching Kill Bill Vol. II, Betty thinks: “Movies weren’t an escape. She’d not escaped. Her life was playing out before her now, in fact, and in every other movie she’d seen too.”
Parentage—being a loving, responsible mother, and the steps to even achieving such a state—is another theme in this multi-layered work, as is working through the difficulties of childhood, yours and your parents, to reach cherished dreams. Betty and Jamie’s mother was adopted and father Tom seems to have suffered abuse, but as the prescribed family life shatters, both forget how lonely they were as children and ignore their own offspring. Betty later clings to motherhood as her destiny (all those years of functioning as a surrogate mom provided excellent practice). Jamie forestalls her own worries about motherhood by attaching herself to a man with substantial parenting issues of his own, thanks to a multi-cultural background as an illegitimate child whose mother died young.
The author deftly moves forward and backward in her narrative, building interest in the story and offering up several small mysteries that will push readers to finish “just one more chapter tonight.” To her credit, Townsend does not provide easy answers; Betty and Jamie lead complicated, convoluted lives. With characters that we grow quite fond of, picturing how frustrating it must be to love Betty and Jamie is quite easy.
The peripheral characters who do care for them over the course of the decades covered in this work—Steven the brother, the girlfriends, the boyfriends, the paramours of the parents, the husbands, the children—each are artfully presented. But that isn’t what sets this novel on a plane above the ordinary. Townsend perfectly emulates the evolving bond between sisters: the low points when they seem to exact the most crushing, unforgivable blows on each other, and the return to the intimate love born of growing up side-by-side. In college, Jamie reflects that “…for if you were attracted to the same man your sister was then it meant that you were no better than her, and you so wanted to be better than her…”
Throughout the years, Betty and Jamie resent each other, fight each other, support each other, selfishly choose what is best for themselves over what their sister desperately needs, wish the worst for the other, but always, always manage to return to their first friend, the sister who knows all their quirks and strengths. Betty realizes: “Giving up on her sister wasn’t an option because it meant giving up on herself…..Betty was a believer. Somewhere along the way she’d forgotten that.”
Townsend, a film blogger, amazingly reins in what could have become a synopsis of a film fan’s attendance at the movies. An experienced writer of short stories, she has clearly mastered getting readers to quickly care about what happens to her characters. The ultimate compliment for this author would be having this book made into an exemplary movie. Now, go call your sister!