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The Chelsea Girls


The Chelsea Girls

Hazel Ripley comes from a theater family, but she’s only ever stood in the wings waiting for her big break that never seemed to arrive. In fact, she’s never performed on stage. After her brother’s death in World War II, she decides to join the USO Tour and put her minimal acting skills to use entertaining the troops. She’s shipped off to Italy, and shortly after her arrival, she finds herself onstage for the first time in her career. This is a terrifying and exhilarating experience for her.

That’s the same night Hazel meets Maxine Mead --- an actress, a starlet and a woman who quickly becomes her best friend. They bond after saving two boys from an angry Italian mob. And thanks to their interference and attempts at finding out if the youngsters are safe in U.S. custody, they end up involved with the U.S. propaganda broadcast. The unexpected opportunity allows them to fully realize their talents: Maxine the actress, Hazel the writer and director.

"I absolutely adored this book --- from the settings to the friendships, and even the betrayals. It made me angry, it made me sad, and it made me laugh. I can’t ask for more than that."

Returning to the states signals another grand turn of events. Maxine goes back to Hollywood and the life of a big-screen star, while Hazel reunites with her family in New York. Unfortunately for Hazel, success doesn’t follow her home. She sees Maxine’s triumphs, and jealousy steals into their friendship. After a fight with her mother, Hazel decides that change is necessary. She moves into the Chelsea Hotel and swiftly sells her first Broadway script. Around this time, Maxine reappears in Hazel’s life, and the two proceed to deliver a proclaimed play based on their time in the USO.

While their renewed friendship provides a protective bubble from the outside world, McCarthyism is sweeping across the country, with the entertainment industry taking the biggest hit. When Hazel is named in an anti-communist pamphlet as a sympathizer, the play, not to mention their friendship, teeters on the edge of disaster. So Hazel does what she knows how to do --- she stands up for what she believes in and fights back with everything she has, knowing it may ruin her in the end.

I love that the Chelsea is a character in the book --- a home, a safe haven, and a place of inspiration for its residents. The mythical rejuvenation it provides to its artists, musicians and writers is a reminder that friendly discourse and disagreements can happen, all while respecting each other. It’s the place where Hazel and Maxine rekindle their friendship and build a world where their successes, both individually and collectively, can be nurtured and celebrated. They have a complicated relationship full of love, ambition, admiration and secrets. It’s those secrets that bind them together and, at the same time, push them apart.

The political backdrop of THE CHELSEA GIRLS is palpable and cuts deep. The tension in the entertainment industry and the U.S. at the time show through, and Fiona Davis pulls it all together in this story of two independent women looking to share their art. While historical fiction, the political climate of the setting resonates today and is both infuriating and sad at the same time. I absolutely adored this book --- from the settings to the friendships, and even the betrayals. It made me angry, it made me sad, and it made me laugh. I can’t ask for more than that.

Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on August 2, 2019

The Chelsea Girls
by Fiona Davis