Book Review: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict – 3 stars

Since the inaugural Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club meeting has come and gone and we had the opportunity to discuss The Only Woman in the Room as a group, I thought I’d follow up with my personal review of the book now.

I added The Only Woman in the Room to the list of books that the Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club could select for its first meeting because I had heard such good things about Benedict’s Carnegie’s Maid and The Other Einstein. I was excited when The Only Woman was selected as I knew that Benedict explored the life of Hedy Lamarr, an actress in America who I knew only by name and who apparently had a great many other accomplishments in addition to her acting and an amazing backstory. As someone who considers herself a feminist, I’m always excited to hear stories of woman who have overcome obstacles and asserted themselves despite the constraints of place, time and culture.

The Only Woman in the Room is the story of famous actress Hedy Lamarr (originally Hedy Keisler) – an Austrian Jew who immigrated to the United States as an actress to escape her violent, controlling husband – munitions magnate, Fritz Mandl. Through Benedict’s book, we watch as Keisler’s marriage and heritage bring her to the brink of danger during World War II and then see how escaping to the United States changes both her name and her life. Not only does she become a major name on the American silver screen, she becomes interested in scientific experiements to benefit the war effort and attempts to assuage her guilt at escaping by supporting and initiating projects to help the Jews and defeat the Germans.

As I began reading the book, I was fascinated by Hedy Keisler and her burgeoning relationship with Mandl and curious about how his violent, controlling side and Keisler’s Jewishness would play out. Unfortunately, it felt to me that the fact that Keisler was Jewish was glossed over a bit…Benedict’s telling of the story almost made it appear that Keisler herself was surprised to find out she was Jewish. Considering that her parents supposedly pushed her to marry Mandl to protect herself and them from the Nazis, I was confused by how little Keisler identified with her religion and culture.

The ‘cat and mouse’ portion of the book that focuses on Mandl trying to control Keisler and her trying to escape was very interesting and pulled the storyline along for 2/3 of the book. Aside from highlighting that Keisler’s father talked to her a great deal about politics and current events, however, I didn’t get a sense that Keisler had the education or experience to take in the information that Benedict purports she did. While it is one thing to have been an intelligent woman in that era, I found it hard to believe that Keisler had the skills she would have needed to actually comprehend/take action on a great number of the arms secrets that she supposedly gathers in the book. While other writers seem to indicate that Keisler was involved in scientific inventions throughout her life and therefore would have been capable of gathering and utilizing the information she overheard from her husband’s colleagues, I didn’t get that sense at all from Benedict’s book and thus had to suspend disbelief a bit in order to accept that Keisler subsequently became a war spy and munitions inventor.

The historical aspects of The Only Woman in the Room were very interesting…the Austrian culture, the Hollywood parties and the attitudes that were held toward women during World War II were definitely topics explored in the book that I found riveting. I could truly feel Lamarr’s frustration at the non-verbal roles she was assigned by MGM because of the desire to focus on her beauty alone. As an old Hollywood noir piece, this book delivered an amazing picture of a place and time that resonated throughout the pages and provided a glimpse into exactly what sex discrimination looked and felt like in the ‘old boys’ club’ of Hollywood.

Presented as a fictionalized memoir however, I struggled to understand some of Lamarr’s motivations (Why didn’t she pair up with a scientist or munitions expert to begin her experiments? Why did she choose to partner with a musician when so many others must have been available to her?) and decisions (If she held all of the arms secrets that are described in the book, why not use her fame and influence to approach someone in the U.S. government and share that information?) and thus finished the book with a fair bit of skepticism. As a story, The Only Woman in the Room has a message about Lamarr’s strength, influence and isolation as a woman of that time. As a memoir, it required a bit more believability to hang together for me.

As a fiction reader who loves a good story, well told, I struggled in places to stick with The Only Woman in the Room. Benedict asked me to believe in circumstances and motivations that seemed tenuous, at best, to me and left the second half of her book far less explored than the details she provided about Keisler’s early life. After allowing myself to be drawn into Keisler’s conundrum as a an Austrian Jew married to an arms dealer who was in bed with the Nazis, I wanted to be submerged in the story of how she perservered to the very same degree. Unfortunately, the last half of the book didn’t feel as well-developed or intriguing to me as the first. As a reader who enjoys learning about people, places and times that I am unfamiliar with however, The Only Woman in the Room was a valuable opportunity for me to sink into World War II from a new perspective and, if for that reason alone, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to read Benedict’s newest book!

To get your own copy The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict, please click the link below:

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