Monday, January 11, 2016

I Don't Know How the Story Ends by J.B. Cheaney, 2015

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The bustling beginning of Hollywood comes to life in this funny yet touching novel.
When Isobel Ransom is dragged on a long vacation to Hollywood, she anticipates nothing more than homesickness, especially with her father away at war. But that's before she meets her cousin, Ranger. Ranger's making his very own motion picture, and he insists that Isobel and her little sister, Sylvie, be a part of this secret project. But it soon appears that Ranger hasn't yet found a story to tell - that is, until Isobel's injured father returns from the front. Movie stars, eccentric directors, and the wild-west atmosphere of early Hollywood form a lively context to this story of learning how to make sense of an unexpected world.

(288 pages)

I know pretty much nothing about the history of filmmaking. What little I do know comes from Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I know much more now, though - I Don't Know How the Story Ends is a very educational book! That's not its priority, though, that's not what it's first and foremost meant to be. It's just that it's set during WWI, in Hollywood, and the main characters happen to be making a movie.

This is a rather strange book, filled with a mixture of old movie-making and timeless relationship issues. Isobel is torn apart between missing her father - who is serving as a doctor in the war - being proud of him, and worrying that her mother is forgetting about him. Charlie Chaplin approaches Isobel's mother partway through the story, offering her a role in his next movie, and Isobel is afraid to see her mother blushing and laughing with him. When her father comes home injured - pretty mutilated, really - Isobel's internal conflict takes center stage for a while as she can't cope with the fact that her handsome father has been turned into such a scarred, hideous creature.

As I'm completely uninterested in movie-making both past and present, some parts of the story kind of dragged for me as the kids wandered around filming shot after shot. By the end of the story I was a little more invested in the movie-making process, though, and the movie itself intrigued me because it was like a puzzle: they had all these scenes, shot out of order, and no idea what sort of story they would make. It was pretty cool seeing the story evolve as shooting went along. The movie they eventually produced was really great, too, though the scene where they reveal it fell a bit flat for me. I'm not sure why - perhaps I just wasn't invested in the characters enough.

That's probably my main issue with the book, really, is that I wasn't quite as absorbed into the story and the characters as I usually am. Perhaps it was just me, perhaps I was having an off-day, but I never truly reached the place where I abandoned my surroundings and dived whole-heartedly into Isobel's. I liked Isobel, but I kind of hated the way she reacted toward her father; I liked Ranger, but he sometimes struck me as being a rather contrived character; I like Isobel's little sister Sylvie, but - actually, no buts there. Sylvie was perfect, just as annoying and gullible and precious as any real-life little sister. I think she may have actually been my favorite character.

Anyway, I do recommend this book to you if you like the history of filmmaking or reading about the families of men who went off to war. I think many people will like this book more than I did, so don't skip it because I liked but didn't love it. There are a lot of different things to chew on in I Don't Know How the Story Ends, a lot of different themes that different people will draw out of the story, but I personally didn't get anything out of it besides a few hours of entertainment.

And really, a few hours of entertainment is benefit enough all on its own.

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