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A CurtainUp Review
Three Girls and Their Brother by Theresa Rebeck
By Elyse Sommer
Playwright Theresa Rebeck's first novel is one of those books often labeled as good reads, beach reads or page turners. If it were a play, you'd describe the format as four monologues by each of the story's main characters, actually starting in reverse order of the title: First the brother and youngest member of this super-dysfunctional family, then the youngest, middle and older sister.
The setup works well to advance the story of a Brooklyn family caught up in the whirlwind of sudden celebrity. If it were a play instead of a novel, each sibling would address the audience, with the monologue seguing into direct action.
While hardly a major literary work, Rebeck's debut as a novelist reflects her knack for smart, authentic dialogue, smartly timed and structured attention getting and holding plotting -- a knack that's been honed by a successful TV career as well as a high profile playwriting career (her off-Broadway plays included the Pulitzer Prize short-listed Omnium Gathering, and a well received Broadeay production, Mauritius. It takes no getting into it. You're hooked from the first page and onward.
The story has a juicy, ripped from Page Six flavor: It follows the trajectory of three gorgeous red-headed sisters (Daria, 17; Polly, 18; Amelia, 14) after they appear in The New Yorker which is intrigued by the girls because their grandfather was a famous literary figure well known to its readers. The magazine spread transforms the sisters into instant celebrities, their more normal activities (school, hours and partying activities suitable to minors) abandoned. Two deplorable adults bent on insuring that the girls' suddenly rising star will stay afloat, are Mama Heller, a mommy dearest for whom this is a replay of her own youth as a beauty queen, and a manipulative monster of a talent agent. At once in and out of the loop, is their 15-year-old brother Philip. His feeling of admiration for his sisters and his efforts to save Amelia, to whom he's closest, from losing her identity to the the fame game is touching— and ends up making him the most damaged member of the family.
If the Hellers sound a bit like a Park Slope version of the Hollywood Hiltons, it's because the Hilton sisters really did appear in a 1999 New Yorker profile, when they still weren't quite the household word among all who eat up celebrity stories. Accompanying the magazine's piece about the glitzy Waldorf Astoria Hotel life of 18-year-old Paris and 16-year-old Nicky was a come-on photo tagged "New York It Girls."
While there actually is a Hilton brother to make Rebeck's story even more a case of art imitating life, her adding a third sister may be attributed to the theater world penchant for Three Sisters—from Chekhov's melancholy trio, to Wendy Wasserstein's Sisters Rosenzweig and most recently, the three sisters in Tracy Letts' Tony and Pulitzer winning August: Osage County. Actually, the novel's first section is more reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield than any of these sister dominated play. Furthermore, Philip Heller brings the most distinctive and memorable voice to the novel.
Rebeck's satire of what it takes to stretch out that 15-minutes of fame and be part of the New York/Hollywood world of super models, movie stars and their handlers is spot on and holds up through Amelia's section. When Amelia, the only sister with any talent but also the only one who is not blown away by the " It Girls" business gets cast in an off-off Broadway showcase, the author makes good use of her insider's familiarity with that scene. Polly and Daria, however, seem pretty much like one character and don't make nearly as strong an impression. This makes one wish that there were a windup chapter for Philip. Perhaps he could have rescued Three Girls and Their Brother, from ultimately being less literary groundbreaker than chick-lit page turner.