In a searing early scene of Mercury Pictures Presents, 12-year-old Maria Lagana and her father enjoy the coolness of the cinema one Sunday morning in Rome. As father and daughter watch The Monster of Frankenstein, Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts storm the theater and set it on fire. Soon after this terrifying event, Maria betrays her anti-Fascist father during a misguided attempt to protect him, and he’s sent into exile.
Maria’s misstep and guilt define her life and the lives of her family, setting the stage for the rest of this cinematic sweep of a book. Over time, the Frankenstein story becomes symbolic for Maria, who sees herself as “a monster at the window of a house where she did not belong, trying to find her way to the lighted room within.”
Anthony Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, The Tsar of Love and Techno) has created an energetic, wildly comical tale that’s bursting with copious historical details. Amid all the action and plot twists, it’s also a serious examination of immigration and xenophobia, identity and impersonation, and art, propaganda and censorship. As Maria and Artie make films and try to get them past the censors, readers learn a cavalcade of intriguing movie-making facts. Another major plotline involves Vincent Cortese, an Italian immigrant and photographer, and includes flashbacks to his daring, vividly described escape from Italy that will leave readers on the edges of their seats.
Marra glides effortlessly between a number of characters and their pasts, presents and futures, all of which are complicated by World War II. Maria and Vincent escape Fascist Italy only to find themselves classified as “enemy aliens” by the United States, with their movements and actions severely restricted. Maria’s boyfriend, Eddie Lu, is a Shakespearean actor who is typecast into roles of “Fu Manchu villainy,” his characters “either entirely emasculated or entirely predatory, living at the lurid limits of deviancy.” Hungarian American actor Bela Lugosi also makes several appearances, adding further real-world context to Marra’s exploration of immigration and impersonation through the lens of 1940s Hollywood.
While Marra’s many threads are intricately woven, they can occasionally be overwhelming, and the novel is at its strongest when focused on Maria, Vincent and their immediate families. Despite some meandering, Mercury Pictures Presents is full of passion, energy and exuberance, just like the Hollywood world it portrays.