Book Review: American Blonde

American Blonde
Published By: Plume
Publication Date: July 29, 2014
Page Count: 416
Source: ARC Provided By Publisher
Audience/Genre: Adult Historical Fiction

Velva Jean Hart is a true war hero; a WASP pilot who rescued her brother from certain death at the hands of the enemy during World War II. Velva Jean is a spunky, modern heroine with a knock-out voice. She dreams of performing on the Grand Old Opry, until MGM offers her a screen test and, with it, a chance to train with the best vocal coaches in California. She takes the chance and becomes Kit Rogers, but instead of being entranced by the luxuries of the studio system, Kit/Velva Jean feels stifled. When a former WASP friend who happens to also be MGM's biggest star, dies under questionable circumstances -- Velva Jean turns amateur private eye and fights for truth within, and against, the studio system that created her.

This was a good read, but at times I felt like the book suffered from an identity crisis. Niven writes well about the studio system, how MGM took Velva Jean/Kit and polished and polished her to the point she started losing herself. And she also writes the mystery aspect of the story well, I just wish she'd chosen one to focus on because I think I would have enjoyed the book more. I loved the old Hollywood section at the beginning, but the build up to the mysterious death/catalyst for the plot was slow. Once Velva Jean/Kit started her investigation, the story took off...I just wish more had been done with the first third of the book.

The first third of the book is all studio system -- Velva Jean leaves her backwoods home (but not life, the girl has lived a ton!) for the bright lights of Hollywood. They color her hair a new shade, dubbed "American Blonde" and work on her vocals, acting, poise, etc. until from sun up to sun down. She reunites with an old WASP friend, Eloise Mudge (who MGM has dubbed Barbara Fanning) who happens to be one of MGM's biggest stars and is wrapping up a leading performance in Home of the Brave, a Gone with the Wind scale picture. Velva Jean/Kit falls into a flirtation with an author and script writer, while she struggles against the attraction she has to her brother's gritty bandmate.

The second two-thirds of the book has aspects of the Golden Age of Hollywood in it, but it is ultimately a mystery novel. Velva Jean/Kit turns investigator after Mudge/Barbara dies under questionable and suspicious circumstances. She enlists the help of a few friends, goes on clandestine flights to research and dig up information, and ultimately things fall into place...but not before more deaths within the Hollywood family, and a few attempts on Velva Jean's life.

My favorite scene of this novel was when Velva Jean and Mudge flew the bomber, Niven writes them with joy and complete abandon, exactly what I imagine it feels like to fly. I also thought the fact that Velva Jean/Kit wasn't a big fan of her MGM name was a nice touch, because I wasn't a fan either. I also enjoyed the "Endings" section at the close of the book -- Niven includes historical information and context, along with her own story of falling in love with Hollywood and meeting Gene Kelly.

Summary via Goodreads

A fearless and spirited pilot conquers Hollywood. Now can she survive movie stardom?
In 1945, Velva Jean Hart is a bona fide war heroine. After a newsreel films her triumphant return to America, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promises to make her a star. They give her a new life story and a brand new name. As “Kit Rogers,” she navigates the movie sets, recording sessions, parties, staged romances, and occasional backstabbing that accompany her newfound fame. She also navigates real-life romance, finding herself caught between a charismatic young writer and a sexy and enigmatic musician from her past. But when one of her best friends dies mysteriously and the most powerful studio in the world launches a cover-up, Velva Jean goes in search of the truth— risking her own life, as well as her heart, in the process.
Set during Hollywood’s Golden Age and peopled with a cast of unforgettable characters, American Blonde will mesmerize readers of The Chaperone as well as fans of the Velva Jean series.