Book Review of The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

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The other day, my husband (who is raising daughters and so tends to think in these terms) made a comment about the word “history.” My five-year-old was singing Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and belted out the last word. Following her performance, he paused for a moment and said, “When you break down that word, what do you get? His. Story.”

I nodded and replied, “I’ve heard people instead refer to ‘herstory,’ as the alternate version that we don’t often get to hear.”

“Yes! I want to hear more of that,” he replied.

While “herstory” has unfortunately not been recorded in many cases, Marie Benedict’s fiction offers peeks into the lives of significant women in history. Her previous books, The Other Einstein (about Albert Einstein’s physicist wife) and Carnegie’s Maid (about a woman who may have influenced Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy), both brought to light the lives of otherwise little-known women.

Benedict’s latest subject in The Only Woman in the Room, Hedy Lamarr, could never be accused of being upstaged by men. Known as one of the most beautiful women in the world, she was a true movie star with an undeniable presence and force of will. But even these things couldn’t prevent her from being marginalized for her sex–especially when she turned to science and inventing, the hidden part of her life revealed in The Only Woman in the Room.

Quick Take Review of The Only Woman in the Room

The Only Woman in the Room: A Novel

The Only Woman in the Room: A Novel

Author: Marie Benedict
Source: Publisher (SourceBooks Landmark) via NetGalley
Publish Date: January 8, 2019

The Only Woman in the Room is a riveting fictional account of a woman previously only known for her beauty and acting. Benedict makes real the life of a charismatic woman who refuses to be one dimensional and whose innovations contributed to the technologies we now use every day.

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Elements of Interest

  • World War II historical fiction
  • Little-known scientific achievements of a woman known for her beauty and acting
  • Political machinations just prior to WWII
  • Hollywood in the 1940s

What Worked

Making a Movie Star Real

I didn’t know much about Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Kiesler) before reading this book; I knew her name, that she was a movie star, and that she’d had an interest in science and invention.

Hedy Lamarr Publicity Photo for The Heavenly Body 1944

The movie stars of Lamarr’s time often have a removed, untouchable quality to them. They seem almost unreal in their glossy perfection and honed personas. They were, of course, the subjects of gossip, rumors, and public speculation, but compared to today’s nonstop gossip-and-Twitter-treadmill, they largely remained on their pedestals.

Lamarr especially, with her great beauty and unfailing confidence, seemed somehow above the mere mortals who admired her. Benedict’s dive into the details of Lamarr’s life brings a fresh humanity and depth to a complicated woman, whose life wasn’t all glitter and glamour.

Her Past and Motivations

Though she had a privileged upbringing in Vienna–her banker father was doting and indulgent of all her curiosities, while her musician mother was removed and critical–the impending war and spread of fascism threatened their Jewish family and prompted Hedy to make decisions she hoped would keep them safe.

While Benedict admits that many details of Lamarr’s past–especially during the years of her oppressive marriage to a munitions dealer in Austria–are speculation, the author makes a convincing case for why Lamarr later pursued her inventions with such fervor. Having been privy to–and then escaped–the horrifying plans of the most powerful dictators in the world, Lamarr could only feel a sense of guilt and obligation for her relative privilege.

The Genius and Creativity of Her Inventions

Lamarr’s inventions have to do with radio frequencies used to guide torpedos and how they could be “hopped” to prevent enemies from jamming them. Benedict’s explanation of the technologies was accessible and highlighted the elegance and genius of Lamarr’s solution, which was musically inspired.

What Didn’t Work

While most of the book succeeds in allowing the feel of an “insider look” into Lamarr’s life, there were jarring moments when she still felt distant. These came mostly later in the book when Lamarr was in Hollywood, with throwaway comments about men she was dating (including Howard Hughes) and–to a lesser extent–movies she was filming.

This, however, is a minor quibble, because I appreciated the focus on Lamarr’s scientific pursuits. There were times, though, that these other parts of her life felt insignificant–and I don’t believe they were. I wasn’t necessarily looking for the gossip or even details (a book can only be so long), but a more well-rounded picture of how her personal and professional lives intersected with her scientific pursuits would have helped bridge that divide.

Quotes

Speaking honestly with George about my past and my ambitions, instead of talking through the persona of Hedy Lamarr, movie star, that I played most of the day, felt liberating. In his tone, I heard not judgment or disappointment at meeting this Hedy but that I was recognized for the first time since I had arrived in Hollywood. And accepted.

Great for Readers Who Liked These Books

In addition to The Other Einstein and Carnegie’s Maid, also by Marie Benedict, readers who liked these books might enjoy The Only Woman in the Room:

Book review of The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict, a historical fiction novel about the life and inventions of the actress Hedy Lamarr.

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2 Comments

  1. You hit the nail on the head with this review. I thought the book was good but not great and it is because of the unevenness in which details Benedict shared from Lamarr’s life. It kind of kept me at arm’s length. Still, what a fascinating, brilliant, and completely overlooked woman!

  2. This is a book I’ve been very curious about, especially because I loved Code Girls and this is the same era. I really appreciate your review (and Catherine’s comment above). I think I’ll skip The Only Woman in the Room for now, but may come back to it later in the year.

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