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I became a fan of C.W. Gortner’s writing with his Tudor spy series and even more so with his book about Coco Chanel, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL, which I adored. Needless to say, Gortner has done it again with MARLENE. He has a way of bringing to life figures who are already larger than life and making you marvel at them all over again.

Raised by a widowed mother in post-World War I Berlin, Maria Magdalena Dietrich, affectionately known as Lena by her family, is a stubborn but disciplined free spirit who is in constant battle with her need to please an overbearing but very well-meaning mother who only wants to do the best she can for her two daughters. An accomplished but not highly talented violinist, Marlene finds that she has a talent for acting and singing while at the prestigious Weimar Academy. When it becomes abundantly clear that a career as a violinist is not in the cards for her, Marlene decides to take her fate in her own hands and train as an actress.

"If you enjoy the romance of old Hollywood, MARLENE is for you. If you love the glamour of starlets and are fascinated by their lives, buy this book. There's nothing but pure joy in these pages."

While her new career choice doesn't please her mother one bit, it does please Marlene to no end. The work is hard, sometimes even degrading, but she continues to struggle, determined to finally find fame and fortune in a world she fully loves. She makes a name for herself in cabaret and at underground drag halls, slipping easily into the world and especially loving that she can be what she wants and who she wants. This new life she's built for herself doesn't stop on the stage, as her unconventional love life also becomes something she's proud of. Loving when and who she likes also fascinates her lovers, and in some cases works to her favor. Not much for social convention, she does eventually marry and have a child, but that doesn't stop her or her need to prove herself.

Finding fame with a role as a cabaret singer in the film The Blue Angel, Marlene finally has her ticket to Hollywood. With the Nazi party rising in power, she wants to get out of Germany and takes the opportunity to find fame in America. She finds that elusive fame fairly quickly, fast becoming one of the highest paid actresses of her time. Her unconventional love life also boosts her fame, but when World War II breaks out, all she wants to do is help serve the troops. She becomes an American citizen and heads out on several USO tours to entertain the troops --- conquering even a few generals in her path.

When she finally makes her way back to Germany, the life she left behind is completely obliterated and her family is in shambles, yet she finds the strength to deal as best she can and then moves on once more. Marlene decides that she needs to live on her own terms once again.

There's something so very thrilling about Gortner’s Marlene --- or maybe titillating is a better word. She very much lives in the moment, in the way she makes life decisions and takes lovers. You honestly can't predict her next move, but there's a great chance she can’t either. While there are calculated decisions meant to draw press and attention, she is her own woman. You have to adore that about her. Not willing to live by others’ rules, and certainly not societal norms, she is a constant challenge to the system. It's fascinating to see her bend but not break and only grow stronger.

If you enjoy the romance of old Hollywood, MARLENE is for you. If you love the glamour of starlets and are fascinated by their lives, buy this book. There's nothing but pure joy in these pages.

Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on June 3, 2016

by C. W. Gortner

  • Publication Date: December 13, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062406078
  • ISBN-13: 9780062406071