Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521
An Unfinished Woman had a ravishing impact on its first readers. Hellman wrote engagingly about her childhood in New Orleans and New York, of her handsome, philandering father, of her dizzy but warmhearted mother, and of her shrewd and compassionate aunts. It was all very dramatic—Hellman’s jump from her favorite tree (breaking her nose) when she discovered that her father was seeing another woman, her running away from home and being surprised by her first period, her confused first years in Hollywood as a reader of scripts (and her later ambivalent relationship with film mogul Samuel Goldwyn), the stormy affair with Dashiell Hammett. These incidents and many others revealed a fiery, independent, comic, and defiant personality.
As Hellman notes in An Unfinished Woman, she did not intend to be the bookkeeper of her life—that is, relating in strict chronological fashion every period and incident in her career. She would, rather, trust to her memory to evoke the crucial events and characters. She devotes, for example, whole chapters to Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett, because her friendships with them spanned much of her adult life. The structures of these chapters are built around the personalities she describes and not on any consistent time sequence.
Indeed, Hellman is not willing to vouch for her dates; she stresses that she is remembering and reshaping the events that have remained important to her. In her chapter on Spain, for example, she does not try to reconstruct a narrative of her brief visit during the Civil War. Rather, she presents extracts from her diary, vivid reports of what it felt like to move around the country, gauging the people’s moods and responding to their curiosity about America.
Several reviewers noted how little space Hellman gives to the theater in her first memoir. She shows virtually no interest in detailing what happened backstage, how she came to write her plays, or the social lives of actors, playwrights, and producers. Although she includes a chapter about the theater in Pentimento, An Unfinished Woman accurately reflects her lack of concern or enjoyment of the business of the theater. Her plays were written in isolation; she rarely revised them in production and did not like the process of collaboration. This was also true, she points out in An Unfinished Woman, in Hollywood, where, except for her first assignment as a screenwriter, she worked alone—a remarkable privilege in an industry known for employing teams of writers to work on one screenplay.
The title of Hellman’s first memoir implies that the significance of her life, the meaning of its key events, had not settled in her mind. At several points, she confesses her inability to come to a conclusion, and the memoir ends with the word “however.” The idea that she was “unfinished” and still in the process of discovering herself held great appeal for her readers, and she was urged by several reviewers to write another memoir. She obliged them by producing Pentimento, a collection of character portraits that, in style and structure, pick up directly from the last three chapters of An Unfinished Woman.