John Herrick had an interesting idea: What if Marilyn Monroe wrote a screenplay while she was married to Arthur Miller? What if she gave it to a young friend, properly stamping each page with her thumbprint to prove authenticity? What if the friend, Del Corwyn, packed the script away and forgot about it? What if today, 72-year-old Del, now facing bankruptcy, discovers the script, which Marilyn titled “Beautiful Mess”?
That’s the armature on which Herrick builds his new novel, Beautiful Mess. If stories about Hollywood, the stresses of fame, the dangers of false gods, and a happy ending are the sort of book that attracts you, stop reading this review right now and add Beautiful Mess to your to-read list. You’ve been warned.
It’s not a bad book. I admire Herrick’s industry. He’s published four earlier novels and a book of non-fiction (8 Reasons Your Life Matters). Beautiful Mess comes with a reading group guide, interview with the author, and a stand-alone short story. In his answer to the question of what motivates him to select one book concept over another, Herrick gives three elements, gut feeling, commercial and target-audience appeal, and “potential to inspire or encourage the reader.”
Expanding on motivation number three, he writes,”The same collection of words triggers diverse responses among readers. It can serve as entertainment for one person. It might inspire another to reach for his or her dreams. And that same novel could uplift someone enduring pain or contemplating suicide. It’s such a privilege, and it’s like fuel during my writing process.” Which may account for my problems with the novel.
Herrick’s main character, Del Corwyn is an actor who almost won an Academy Award years ago. He has a big house in Malibu, runs every day to keep himself in shape, never married, has been living beyond his means, but seems to have no inner life. He was Marilyn Monroe’s friend when is was barely out of his teens and had an acting career that never went anywhere.
Del meets a 25-year-old actress, Nora Jumelle, who is up for an Academy Award for a breakout indie film. Nora is adventurous enough—or screwed up enough—to have a one-night-stand with Del. They agree a May-December relationship will not work (although reportedly the sex was fine) and become friends. Several of the chapters are written from Nora’s point of view.
Del meets Felicia, a minister of certain years (much more age-appropriate for Del) and they become friends. We never learn much about Felicia’s religious calling or what denomination she represents. Del and Nora happen to meet Tristan, a 30-something online wellness coach who makes a good living dispensing “Dear Abby” style advice anonymously and for money.
None of the four main characters seem to have families, friends, or much of a backstory. (Del does have an accountant and an agent.) Herrick, I suspect, started with his concept, then needed characters to move around to make the concept work rather than starting with the character(s) and letting the story grow out of their personalities and experiences.
Another problem for me is the Monroe script at the heart of the book. We never see it, although we do read Marilyn’s letter to Del when she gives him the script. People talk about it, how incredible it is, how the biggest studio in the country is willing to go all in to obtain it. But nothing, really, about it. It is a McGuffin, “a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a McGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot.” Alfred Hitchcock could get away without explaining the specific nature; I wanted to know more about Monroe’s script.
I also had problems with the writing. Here’s Nora regarding Tristan: “He inspired in her a sense of security, and as she sneaked glances at those blue eyes, her heart told her he was a a guy with romantic potential.” Dell regarding Felicia: “. . .Del could see in her eyes that her heart reached out toward his.” (In Herrick’s world, hearts are wonderfully articulate.) “Del invited Felicia to speak a blessing over their meal, then they began to partake.” Who partakes these days? And then there’s poor Nora; she cannot get a break. She attends the Academy Award ceremony dressed in Armani with Del as her date. However, “Little did she know, the following day, critics would balk at her attire and label her the ceremony’s worst-dressed attendee.”
As I said at the beginning, if the premise intrigues you, read the book. It intrigued me enough to read and review it, but I am afraid that on balance I came away from Beautiful Mess agreeing only with the title’s second word.