We’ve gotten so accustomed to broadcasting the details of our lives across various social media platforms that it’s getting hard to recall that our private lives were once indeed private, by design and by necessity. Katherine A. Sherbrooke’s engrossing new novel, “The Hidden Life of Aster Kelly,” takes place during a time when scandals could destroy lives rather than make careers.
This was perhaps especially the case in the heyday of Hollywood, when artifice became reality and images were managed.
“The Hidden Life of Aster Kelly” begins in Los Angeles. The year is 1948, and Aster Kelly has traveled across the country to begin her career as a fashion designer, or so she hopes. She mentors with, and models for, the famous Hollywood couturier Fernando Tivoli, and her Lauren Bacall–like physique gets her noticed, but not for her talent as a designer. As she tells the son of a top Hollywood studio executive whom she meets while modeling and becomes romantically involved with, “I want to be known for being good at something.” His reply: “From what little I saw today, you are already very good at something.”
It’s difficult to know how much to reveal about this book. As the title indicates, there will be secrets aplenty, and complications, ethical quandaries, surprise revelations, coverups, and plot twists.
The book takes place in four locations during two time periods. Hollywood in 1948, and New York, San Francisco, and Martha’s Vineyard in 1975. (It seems like more and more literary characters are heading to the Island these days.)
Sherbrooke masterfully captures the essence, time, and places she writes about. In the 1970s section of the book, we meet Aster’s daughter, Lissy, who is a Vassar graduate, an aspiring stage actress auditioning for Broadway shows — which includes a show readers will identify as “A Chorus Line” — a working waitress who shares a studio apartment with her best friend, and a young woman who — I don’t want to finish this sentence for fear of revealing too much.
Having grown up in New York City in the ’70s, I can attest to the authenticity of her descriptions and the lives her young characters are leading.
“The walls of steam pouring out of manhole covers on every street, smelling of dirty water and hot pretzels.” Yes, indeed!
In a recent email exchange, Sherbrooke, who grew up near the city, wrote, “I have vivid memories as a kid of loving Broadway (inside the theater) and being completely terrified by the state of the streets outside. I did mostly visual research (old photographs, vintage magazines) to validate my childhood memories and fill in some of the murkier details.”
And as Vineyard insiders, we get the joke when Aster tries to track down a former boyfriend and learns that he’s moved to Martha’s Vineyard.
“‘Martha’s Vineyard?’” Aster tried to place it.
“‘I know, I was surprised too. A young single man headed to an island like that? Felt kind of crazy to me, but there you have it.’”
Sherbrooke’s previous novel, “Leaving Coy’s Hill” is the story of often overlooked suffragette, feminist, and abolitionist Lucy Stone. Her new novel is more personal. Sherbrooke explained, “I was struck throughout my life by the burden some of my mother’s choices as a very young woman seemed to have on her. Although she experienced a period in her life as a runway model in Hollywood that could be construed (from the outside anyway) as very glamorous, she said she preferred to pretend that time in her life ‘had never happened.’ That left a big open question for me. What happened and why? Aster’s story is one entirely fictional answer to that question.”
Sherbrooke had to do considerable research for both books, but unlike in “Leaving Coy’s Hill,” the research for her new novel filled in the gaps instead of creating the story. As Sherbrooke explained, “Given that ‘Leaving Coy’s Hill’ sticks closely to the real life of its protagonist, Lucy Stone, my process started with research. I read about Lucy and the political environment of America in the mid-1800s for a solid year before honing in on the story and starting to write. For this book, the story came first, and then I did research to paint each scene as authentically as I could. ‘Aster Kelly’ is also different in that I have two main characters, and the novel alternates between the ’40s and the ’70s, so figuring out the structure of how to weave the two stories together was a particular challenge. I wrote Aster’s and Lissy’s stories separately, and it was during revision that I figured out how to braid them, and in so doing, was able to dig deeper into how each woman’s story is in conversation with the other.”
“The Hidden Life of Aster Kelly,” by Katherine A. Sherbrooke, is available locally at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes bookstore. Whether you’re on the Vineyard or off, we encourage you to support your local bookstore.