Jill Robinson

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Nancy Lynn Schwartz

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"Hollywood is both a small town and a magical kingdom," remarks an actor in Jill Robinson's novel Perdido. And it is precisely this tension, this contradiction between daily life and larger than life, which makes this Hollywood novel so interesting. It is hardly the steamy fan-mag roman-à-clef or the explicit memoir one might expect from the daughter of a one-time studio chief [Jill Robinson is the daughter of Dore Schary]. Rather, it's part Our Town and part epic, with Hollywood as the backdrop for an often haunting story of a young woman's search for her father.

The heroine is Susanna Howard, granddaughter of one of movieland's founding fathers, who lives with her extended, dynastic family in one of those mansions Hollywood's immigrant pioneers built, a sprawling American Versailles called "Perdido." Susanna's small adolescent obsessions are magnified against the opulent background of movieland aristocracy. (p. 473)

The best thing about Robinson's depiction of family life in a patriarchal kingdom is her illumination of the women in Hollywood: mothers, wives and daughters of actors, directors, producers, writers. The book conveys a perceptive vision of this distaff network of life-supporting appendages and indicates that the women are, for myriad reasons, the survivors, defying the beauty ethic that would seemingly make them this town's first casualties.

The epic, rather tragic flavor of Perdido is heightened by the fact that the story begins at the end of an era. The pioneer immigrants have mostly died out. Television and the cold war are laying siege to the kingdom in a slow war of attrition, breaking down the walls that can no longer isolate Hollywood from the rest of the world. Perdido, loss, lost….

Perdido is overflowing with fascinating observations, but for all its richness it's a frustrating, often disappointing work. The witty, acute statements about Hollywood are made in passing but not pursued. So much that's good in this book is on the periphery, indirectly illuminated or glimpsed momentarily, but where the center should hold it fumbles.

The biggest problem, unfortunately, is that Susanna, the poor little princess, doesn't sustain the book. Robinson has attempted, for most of the book, to use one of the most difficult narrative voices—a precocious child speaking in the first-person present. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, and when it fails it's like an American primitive portrait of a child with a freakishly adult face. I am an ardent admirer of Robinson's autobiographical Bed/Time/Story, a beautifully written book which forces the reader to care about the characters and their fate. It seems almost as if Robinson retreated after such a cathartic, confessional work, but in distancing herself from her characters she has drawn back too far. The result is that apart from two or three characters who come vitally to life only to be snatched away too quickly, most of the characters in Perdido are curiously lacking dimension. In that way, Perdido is an impressive attempt to build a mansion which comes out resembling a movie set. It's a glorious, almost believable façade but you couldn't live there. (p. 474)

Nancy Lynn Schwartz, "She Lost It at the Movies," in The Nation (copyright 1978 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), April 22, 1978, pp. 473-74.

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