This epic story of survival and hope during WWII will have you rewinding and cheering like a Hollywood classic.
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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.
Mercury Pictures Presents
When you entered the executive offices of Mercury Pictures International, you would first see a scale model of the studio itself. Artie Feldman, co-founder and head of production, installed it in the lobby to distract skittish investors from second thoughts. Complete with back lot, sound stages, and facilities buildings, the miniature was a faithful replica of the ten-acre studio in which it sat. Maria Lagana, as rendered by the miniaturist, was a tiny, featureless figure looking out Artie’s office window. And this was where the real Maria stood late one morning in 1941, hands holstered on her hips, watching a pigeon autograph the windshield of her boss’s new convertible. She’d like to buy that bird a drink.
“It’s a beautiful day out, Art,” Maria said. “You should really come have a look.”
“I have,” Artie said. “It made me want to jump.”
Artie wasn’t known for his joie de vivre, but he usually didn’t fantasize about ending it all this close to lunch. Maria wondered if the Senate Investigation into Motion Picture War Propaganda was giving him agita, but no—the crisis at hand was on his head. His bald spot had finally grown too large for his toupee to conceal.
Six other black toupees were shellacked atop wooden mannequin heads on the shelf behind his desk, where a more successful producer might display his Oscars. They were conversation starters. As in, Artie began conversations with new employees by telling them the toupees were the scalps of their predecessors.
Why I love it
Author, The Nix
The first time I heard anything about Mercury Pictures Presents, I was on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, standing at the lip of a volcano, talking with a fellow traveler. The island was São Miguel, in the Azores; the volcano was dormant; and the traveler was Anthony Marra, whom I’d just met at a literary festival a few days prior. The festival was now over, and we’d both decided to take a day to explore this wonderful place. As we appreciated the view of a roughly half-million-year-old caldera, I asked him if he was working on anything new.
“Yeah,” he said. “A novel about Hollywood.”
He nodded. “Hollywood in the forties.”
And that was all he said about that. We explored until sundown, and both returned home the next day.
I didn’t hear from him again for four years. By then he’d finished the book. I finagled myself a copy and quickly found myself spellbound. I realized that not only was Anthony a good travel buddy, he was also stupendously modest: his “novel about Hollywood” is about so much more than that. It’s a book about the ironies and hypocrisies of war, the horrors inflicted by zealotry, the absurdity of the authoritarian state, and the degradation caused by disinformation and propaganda. It’s a book about people trying to build lives at society’s margins, right the wrongs of the past, and forge real human connections. And also, somehow, amidst all this serious stuff, it’s really, really funny.
In Mercury Pictures Presents, Anthony Marra has done something extraordinary and very hard: he’s told a story that’s both intimate and sweeping, grave and humorous, timely and timeless. It’s a great read if you want to be utterly transported—or if you’re simply interested in, yes, a novel about Hollywood.
Member ratings (1,442)
I love that Anthony Marra writes stories that just pull you in - and on wildly divergent topics about which I previously knew nothing. Great entertainment and learning at the same time.
Mount Rainier, MD
The writing was lyrical yet heady, the characters were engaging yet flawed, and the plot was nonlinear yet never completely lost its way. Compelling messaging about a complex period.
Oh, this was so good. It had the same richness as A Gentleman in Moscow or Cloud Cuckoo Land. I loved the characters and felt like I was there with them, whether in Italy or LA.
Portola Valley, CA
An enjoyable, rambling tale of a movie studio and the cast of characters employed there, struggling to establish their identities against the backdrop of the Second World War.
West Des Moines, IA
I loved this. Mercury Pictures Presents is not quickly paced. Nor is it a look at the glamorous side of Hollywood. But I just adored it all. And the last chapters? Tears.