The Only Woman in the Room
by Marie Benedict
Published by: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publish Date: 2019
Genre(s)/Topics: Fiction, Historical Fiction, World War 2, Based on a True Story, Women in History
HB&W Rating: 3.75
View on Goodreads
Buy on Amazon: Barnes & Noble, Book Depository
Triggers: Physical Abuse, Anti-Semitism
Hedy Kiesler is lucky. Her beauty leads to a starring role in a controversial film and marriage to a powerful Austrian arms dealer, allowing her to evade Nazi persecution despite her Jewish heritage. But Hedy is also intelligent. At lavish Vienna dinner parties, she overhears the Third Reich’s plans. One night in 1937, desperate to escape her controlling husband and the rise of the Nazis, she disguises herself and flees her husband’s castle.
She lands in Hollywood, where she becomes Hedy Lamarr, screen star. But Hedy is keeping a secret even more shocking than her Jewish heritage: she is a scientist. She has an idea that might help the country and that might ease her guilt for escaping alone—if anyone will listen to her.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
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Hedy Lamarr’s life before Hollywood and her contributions to the scientific community have long gone unknown to the general public. The fact that her work serves as the largely unacknowledged foundation of the technology you are likely using to read this review (your mobile phone, wifi, etc.) is just a prime example of the way women were written out of history for far too long. So I appreciate the effort of authors and researchers, like Marie Benedict, who have made it their mission to write women back into history and give them their due.
This is the first book I’ve read by Marie Benedict, though I do have another of her books on my To-Read list (Lady Clementine). I have to admit that I didn’t realize this was a fictional telling of her life as opposed to a biography when I initially picked it up, but that didn’t turn me off of it, just meant that I would find it a bit easier to read, more evocative than a typically dry biography.
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 covers Hedy’s life in Austria, beginning with her relationship with Fritz Mandl up until she fled her marriage and her country with the rise of Hitler’s popularity in Austria. Part 2 focuses on her life after meeting Hollywood MGM Studios exec Louis B. Mayer. through the early years of her life in Hollywood and the invention of her frequency-hopping spread-spectrum technology, intended to aid the Allies to win WW2.
I found Benedict’s portrayal of Hedy’s tight-rope walk of a relationship with Fritz in Part 1 to be quite evocative. I felt every internal conflict she was feeling weighing her promise to her father against her sense of survival, both in her marriage and with the impending threat of Hitler on an independent Austria. Her life before fleeing Austria was very well fleshed out, and I could feel the tension, fear, and dread.
In fact, Benedict’s writing remained evocative throughout the entire book, but unfortunately, the second part of the book left something to be desired, in my opinion. The Hollywood portion of Hedy’s life just felt rushed, not as evocative, and I wanted more from it. I wanted to see more of her interactions with Louis B. Mayer and his very interesting wife. I would like to know more about her relationship with her mother, which obviously impacted how she viewed herself and would have been a major contribution to the theme of the book. So that was an opportunity missed, I feel. I also would have liked to see more of the science and technology, but instead, it was generalized and glossed over. It’s possible that this was done purposefully so as not to get too sciencey, but honestly, I think that’s a disservice to both the subject and the reader if indeed that was the intent. Generally, Part 2 just left me feeling like the author was ticking boxes off for the major events in Lamarr’s life for the timeline of her book.
Lastly, one thing I was really hoping for was a more detailed Author’s Note or list of sources for her book. While the Author’s Note does connect some dots between the end of the story and the present time, like the second part of the book, I wanted more. I hoped for some additional (non-fictional) reading material to supplement this fictional telling, but there were no suggestions. Marie Benedict is a lawyer by profession, so I’m sure that she did her research, but just like watching a movie ‘based on a true story,’ I want to know what aspects of this book are factual and what aspects are creative license. She takes a lot of liberties assuming Hedy feels one way or another about something, and I want to know why she decided to portray those particular reactions.
But while it left me wanting more, it also gave me a lot to think about: the way Hedy thought of relationships as different roles to play, her constant struggle to be seen as more than just a pretty face, her sense of guilt, duty and loyalty. All of these things plague women just as much today. We struggle to play the many roles set out for us by society, our loved ones, and even ourselves, all the while wondering if anyone knows the real us and would we even recognize that person in the mirror. And what makes this book truly sad is that the idea that this fiercely intelligent woman had that could have changed the tide of the war was rejected solely on the basis that it was conceptualized by a woman. One passage, in particular, struck me as the most eloquent description of the grief and despondency she must have felt at this.
Had I ever lowered one of my facades fully and braved my bare skin to the world since Papa’s death? The closest I’d come was during my work with George (Antheil), work that I’d been told was unacceptably “unfeminine.” Work to which I’d refused to return after the navy’s rejection, even when George begged me; I simply couldn’t make myself that vulnerable again. Otherwise, I’d midwifed myself through multiple rebirths, donning a fresh persona with every new iteration, only to return to my original veneer again and again.
If you’re familiar with Kate Quinn’s books, this reads very similarly. If you enjoy history and the untold stories of strong women through history, you would enjoy this book. Hedy Lamarr, nee Keisler, was an amazing woman and her story deserves to be told and shared with the world so that she finally gets the recognition that she is more than just a pretty face, so for that alone, I will give this an extra little bump in my rating that otherwise I would have withheld based on the book itself.
Join the Discussion!
If you’re looking to discuss this book with someone, join Miranda Shaver from our fiber community and me on Tuesday, January 25th at 7pm CST on Instagram Stories Live. We will be chatting and getting to know Miranda, working on some projects, sipping some bevies, and talking about the life of Hedwig Keisler, more famously known as Hedy Lamarr. I hope to see you there!
Miranda is a former research chemist of many years who has since transitioned to become a stay-at-home mom and community volunteer. She spends her free time sewing, baking, and trying new crafts. Her most recent endeavors include remodeling the laundry room, hiking, and trying to quilt. She is always reading something,
whether it is a Pokémon index to one of her boys, a book on how to make paper plants, or a work of fiction that has caught her eye.
Miranda’s home in St. Louis, Missouri proudly displays the daily collection of books, Legos, and crafts that are an inspiration and outlet for her, her husband, and their two boys.
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****1/25/22 Update! If you’ve read the book and want to catch the replay of our book club discussion, you can now find that below!****
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