Monday, February 7, 2011
Review: Exit the Actress
Exit the Actress: A Novel
by Priya Parmar
A Touchstone Book
Simon and Schuster
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher
Exit the Actress has an enchanting character at its center, and it is the voice of Ellen "Nell" Gwyn that dazzles the reader from the very first page of Priya Parmar's novel. Nell Gwyn could have spent her life in poverty, selling oysters, then oranges. She seemed almost fated to follow her sister Rose into prostitution. Instead she became an actress, a brilliant comic star, and the mistress of King Charles II.
Parmar recreates the world of Restoration London through Nell's diaries, through letters, playbills, gossip columns, and pages from the "Lady's Household Companion." But most of all, Parmar recreates Nell, giving her character a voice that is lively, engaging, and consistently genuine. From the earliest scenes of the book when Ellen is selling oysters, then oranges at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, to Ellen's transformation into Nell, the spritely dancer and comic actress who charms all of London: it all rings true mainly through Ellen's own conversational voice.
The world of the theater offers Nell a home and a family, and that world is entrancing. Nell is enclosed in a close, if sometimes quarrelsome, community that offers her a security she doesn't find at home. For Nell the stage is home, and the stage is the central metaphor of this beautifully constructed novel. Nell walks on stage at the beginning of the novel, and the reader follows her closely until it is time for Nell to step off the stage: the rest of her life is told in the Epilogue. Exit the Actress focuses on Nell's years on the stage, and on her relationship with Charles II, who lives his life on the stage of the court.
Restoration London is a splendid setting, and Parmar takes full advantage. Nell rubs shoulders with the famous, tells stories of Queen Catherine and Charles II's official mistress, Lady Castelmaine. She visits the pleasure gardens at Foxhall, meets Samuel Pepys, and survives the Great Fire of London, the Plague, and poor romantic choices.
Historical novels often offer a thrilling glimpse of a world of royalty and romance. Exit the Actress offers a fully imagined world, with compelling characters who happen to live in a time and place very unlike our own. Priya Parmar has taken a genre that can be predictable and created a fully imagined universe the reader is reluctant to leave, and a fetching character who will resonate long after the reader turns the last page.