The Dreamy Pull of Stars

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Stargazing has become our governing guilty pleasure. We feel, many of us, that we know Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna or Jennifer Lopez as well as we know our best friends, and though that is clearly an illusion, it is not entirely untrue. As you float along the surfaces of Martha Sherrill's haunting and evocative first novel, you experience something of a waking dream: the It girl of the moment is telling a journalist, "At my deepest point, my still point, I am water," when suddenly, almost inexplicably, you get pulled into something deeper. Stars somehow possess us.

On the face of it, My Last Movie Star (Random House; 349 pages) is a simple tale. Clementine James, a seasoned profile writer for Flame magazine, is asked to write a 5,000-word story on Allegra Coleman, but as the two begin drifting through the cool, dry spaces of California together, Allegra abruptly totals the 1956 Porsche they are in and disappears. Clementine, taken to the hospital, finds herself the celebrity now, as the last person to have seen the missing star alive. As she slips into a life where privacy is obsolete, she starts to be visited by actresses from the past — Dorothy Lamour, Tallulah Bankhead, Marion Davies — who seem as real to her as the Virgin Mary might to other kinds of believers. We have entered the shivery realm of celebrity magic realism.

Sherrill, a longtime writer of magazine profiles, knows all the hard, disillusioning details of the media and movie worlds and has great fun imagining magazines called We, You, Speak and Gas. Yet what makes her book stronger than a generic Hollywood satire is that even as it sees through the tawdriness of the system, it cannot help acknowledging the dreamy pull of its products. Clementine's boss remarks that in Hollywood people seem "so disconnected from everything — from the past, the news, the world, even the weather." Clementine sees that somehow, nevertheless, they still connect with us.

How can such flawed and flighty people touch us so deeply? The stars who drop in on Clementine come across not as great heroines or guardian angels but more as friends stopping off for a sleepover — the kind of friends who affect us more than any wise man could. Eternal in spite of themselves, they give a sly new life to Cassius' famous assessment in Julius Caesar, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."