Gable is known for writing beautiful, lyrical stories that blend familial bonds with deep, dark secrets. I really love her work, but wading through her latest was a giant test of fortitude because of the very nature of her main character, pretentious Alicia Darr Purdom Corning Clark. In 1950s Hyannisport, Alicia works behind the refreshments counter in the Center Movie Theater. From a childhood in Lodz, a burgeoning prosperous city in central Poland, to the chaos of the War, Alicia sees herself as no longer upper-class or even Polish. Struggling to eke out an existence in America, Alicia finds herself in the same boat as her best friend, Irenka.
But Alicia's currency is soon going up when she catches the attention of congressman Jack Kennedy. Discombobulated, bewildered and a little charmed, Alicia is immediately drawn to this attractive but gangly senator: "he was one of them"--the family Irenka "picked up." Jack's father is a former ambassador; the kids are all grown, the mother penurious and a tad odd. The children steal cars and swipe food off one another's plates. The Cape is flooded with their unpaid bills. Irenka tells her they're just a "family of slobs." Soon Alicia hatches a plan; she's accumulated an enormous debt, one she'd never be able to repay using only cash. Through Jack, she sees an opportunity to elevate herself beyond her background and her status of "displaced Pole."
Gable strafes her melodrama with an insider's view of the Kennedy family told through the viewpoint of Alicia, who mostly comes across as an arch-manipulator and anxious social clumber. She gets a part-time job working as a maid tending to the bounteous needs of Jack's family and friends and sees firsthand how the Kennedy personality looms large in its variant forms. Mr. Kennedy is the leader of the tribe, his wife a "supporting player" with her endless critiques and religious adherence to rules and routines. Pat is the prettiest with her auburn hair and violet eyes, but it is Jack who orbits the family and soon becomes the center of Alicia's life: "he would saunter onto the premises...a charismatic, going-places politician, the family's crown jewel." Alicia is wily enough to know she needs someone like Jack, an attractive and ambitious man who is wise to the world.
Gable dismembers every nuance of Alicia's life--every sexual encounter, every romantic distraction, every attempt to claw her way up the ladder of wealth and opportunity. Her love for Jack is bridged only by his popularity. As the 1950s roll into the '60s, this charmed politician sets his sights on the presidency. Alicia has one aim: just to get by. Jack makes her feel valuable and important, lets her "forget that I've ever been for a moment displaced." Alicia notices the way Jack hobbles and struggles to dress. Sometimes there's no glimpse of the "cocksure Kennedy boy."
The main problem with Gable's book is that Alicia is just not that interesting. Though my knowledge of the Kennedy clan has been enhanced (warts and all), Alicia's inherent opportunism became just too much to bear. After her marriage is derailed, she flies to Los Angeles to try her hand at acting, but even in this city of dreams, she's nothing more than a taker and moocher, willing to live of the largesse of actors such as Katharine Hepburn. In the end, I didn't care about Alicia Darr or her husband, the selfish, immature Edmund Perdom, whom Alicia marries out of desperation, or actors like Jerry Lewis and Ronald Reagan, who drink champagne while Alicia lounges by their side.
Perhaps Gable saw something in her heroine that I did not. She's certainly researched her life in detail, from her undeniable love for Jack and her acting struggles to her escape to Rome, where she ekes out a living as an artist. To Alicia, at least, Rome seems alive and new. If only she could rid herself of the last vestige of the unscrupulous Edmund Purdom. Throughout it all, Gable unfurls Alicia's struggles and heartbreak, yet for me she's a merely transitory concern, a woman who comes across as much shallower and far more self-absorbed than Gable perhaps intended.