May 30, 2008

“My Liar” by Rachel Cline

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

Hollywood novels have a natural allure. Rachel Cline, a screenwriter and author of a previous novel, “What to Keep,” uses the Tinseltown setting to good advantage in her new work, “My Liar.”

An unassertive and insecure film editor, Annabeth Jensen, becomes entangled in a friendship with a hip indie-film director, Laura Katz, and their ephemeral, tricky relationship is mirrored by the illusory nature of the movie business.

Unfortunately, the complexity of Hollywood, commerce and artistic endeavors proves to be more interesting than the maddening relationship between Annabeth and Laura.

Desperate for Laura’s approval, Annabeth displays one of the least attractive aspects of show business: the neediness. I kept thinking about Sally Field’s infamous trill after winning her second Oscar, “You like me, right now, you like me!”

Annabeth, who comes to Hollywood from Minnesota, escaping an alcoholic father and angry mother, is fully imagined and well drawn, but Laura, about whom we learn less, is more compelling. Explaining Annabeth to her husband, Laura says, “She’s not really someone I need to cultivate professionally, and she can be a bit … snarky, but sometimes there’s this, I don’t know, momentum when we talk, like when you have a crush on someone in high school. … It’s just weird.”

And yes, it is weird, and it gets weirder. Annabeth and Laura begin working together, on Laura’s low-budget movie about a wide-eyed girl from the Midwest who comes to Hollywood for fame and fortune like thousands before her, and in the process their relationship shifts from adolescent crush to something, well, more deeply neurotic. The movie, titled “Trouble Doll,” is yet another mirror in the funhouse of reflections Hollywood stories often become.

Cline is a gifted writer with a clean, economical style, and she well understands both the psychology and the topography of Los Angeles and the movie business. Though I suspect Annabeth may embody some of Cline’s experiences as an artist in Hollywood, Laura seems to be the character with whom the author is more engaged.

Making a movie, like most serious efforts at art, requires an almost monomaniacal, and sometimes ruthless, devotion. The most interesting relationship in this book, for me, was the one between Laura and her movie.