The Only Woman in the Room
by Marie Benedict
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 272 Pages
Release date: January 8, 2019
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
She was beautiful. She was a genius. Could the world handle both? A powerful, illuminating novel about Hedy Lamarr.
Hedy Kiesler is lucky. Her beauty leads to a starring role in a controversial film and marriage to a powerful Austrian arms dealer, allowing her to evade Nazi persecution despite her Jewish heritage. But Hedy is also intelligent. At lavish Vienna dinner parties, she overhears the Third Reich’s plans. One night in 1937, desperate to escape her controlling husband and the rise of the Nazis, she disguises herself and flees her husband’s castle.
She lands in Hollywood, where she becomes Hedy Lamarr, screen star. But Hedy is keeping a secret even more shocking than her Jewish heritage: she is a scientist. She has an idea that might help the country and that might ease her guilt for escaping alone — if anyone will listen to her. A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece.
My thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark, Booktrib, and The Girly Book Club for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.
“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
The Only Woman in the Room is infinitely engaging, but woefully brief, coming in under 300 pages. Hedy Lamarr, a Jewish woman who married and Austrian arms dealer and eventually fled Europe during Hitler’s rise to power, found fame and fortune as an actress in America. What she wanted more than anything, however, was for the world to see beyond her pretty face and for her intellectual efforts to be taken seriously.
While this novel is historical fiction, the woman it portrays was quite real. As much as I enjoyed the reading experience, I can’t help but feel that, in the interest of brevity, hugely formative periods of her life which involved rapid change were glossed over rather quickly. Hedy Lamarr has been the subject of nonfiction books, a documentary (Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, which is available on Netflix) and there was a memoir published under her name but written by ghost-writers (Ecstasy and Me: My Life As a Woman). Those who are already quite familiar with Lamarr may not find anything particularly enlightening in this novel. If you are like me, however, familiar with Lamarr only through a vague awareness of her as an actress and inventor, this may be a great place to start. The documentary is a great follow-up to this novel, as it delves into Lamarr’s later life, which The Only Woman in the Room does not.
The Hedy Lamarr portrayed in Benedict’s novel is deeply introspective; her attempts to help with the war effort are fueled in part by a sense of survivor’s guilt. Her first husband, a man she agreed to marry mainly because she thought he would protect her, became quite abusive and aligned himself with Nazi interests when it became clear Austria could not stand against Hitler. When Hedy flees Europe, she initially throws herself into Hollywood without reservation. Benedict does an excellent job of portraying the slowly rising sense of guilt and anxiety which compels Hedy to alter the world as we know it, albeit not in the way she ever envisioned.
Hedy Lamarr’s development of what she termed “Spread Spectrum Technology” is addressed briefly in terms of ramifications for today’s technology in the author’s note at the end of the novel. In short, her patent formed the backbone which allowed later inventors to develop all sorts of wireless technology, such as cell phones, fax machines, wifi, and more. Our daily lives are impacted today by her work, which was largely forgotten in favor of her silver screen accomplishments for most of her life. Benedict’s novel attempts to draw the focus back onto Lamarr’s intellectual excellence as opposed to the image of the ornamental damsel many may think of when they hear her name. The Only Woman in the Room is artfully written and imbued with a sense of respect for its subject.
Thank you for reading! If you’ve read The Only Woman in the Room, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
Do you prefer historical fiction which revolves around real historical figures or original characters? Let’s discuss in the comments!