As you can probably tell from all the book-related posts, I am, first and foremost, a reader. I enjoy movies, and there are even films I love and watch over and over, but I tend not to read reviews and I certainly haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the early days of Hollywood. On the contrary, most of the little I do know comes, paradoxically but predictably, from novels such as Joy Lanzendorfer’s Right Back Where We Started From, featured on this blog in July 2021.
I was interested, though, when Graydon House proposed Bárbara Mujica’s Miss del Río for a New Books Network interview. The star here is not only a Hollywood actress but part of the Mexican community of actors who left their homeland to make their careers in Los Angeles in the 1910s and 1920s. Moreover, having fought to break out of clichéd starlet roles, del Río then went back to Mexico and played a role in the establishment of that country’s film industry. And that’s just the fictionalized real-life story. Another, wholly fictionalized mirror story proved to be even more compelling. Read on to find out more.
As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Miss del Río explores the biography of a real-life actress, Dolores del Río, who became a silent movie star in Hollywood, navigated the transition to talkies, and eventually played a role in the establishment of the film industry in her home country of Mexico. The story plays out against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, which influences the lives of the characters in ways both direct and subtle. Add to all this a dramatic tale of the fictional María Amparo (Mara)—Dolores’s hairdresser, confidante, and wry chronicler—and you have a novel that breaks new ground in interesting ways.
The novel opens with Mara late in life, remembering a friend whose commemoration Mara herself is too old and frail to attend. From there, we move back to the outbreak of the Mexican revolution, with Mara a small child being dragged through the streets by her caretaker, a rough woman known as Tía Emi throughout the book. Through Mara’s eyes, we see her first encounter and budding relationship (whether it is truly friendship is an ongoing theme) with the child Dolores, whose background is very different from Mara’s. Mujica then follows the lives of both women as they interact, overlap, and at times separate throughout Dolores’s career.
But Mara has a story of her own: to find out who her mother was, what happened to her, and how Tía Emi became Mara’s caretaker. It’s a tale even more compelling than Dolores’s fight to be taken seriously in her chosen career, and through it, Bárbara Mujica pulls us along to a dramatic finale and a satisfying conclusion.
Images: Dolores del Río in Joanna (1925), her first starring role, and with her mother (1930), both public domain via Wikimedia Commons.