Genre: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Setting: Los Angeles 1932-1962
My Copy Came From: I purchased a used paperback from a local library book sale.
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Content Warnings for Blonde: graphic sex, language, sexual situations, rape, drug use, mental illness, abortion, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, child abuse, abandonment, anti-Semitism, addiction
Review: Thorough, long, intense, and heartbreaking. Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates broke my heart and made me look at Norma Jeane Baker (Marilyn Monroe) in a different way. Telling the story of Norma Jeane and her rise to stardom and her fame as Marilyn Monroe, Blonde is a tough book to read. You’ll notice I put a content warning for this title, as there are really some very difficult, graphic scenes to read here, and this is not a book that everyone will be able to stomach. But for those who push through and read it, you’ll come away with a different take on Norma Jeane and Marilyn Monroe.
Though she might have been sad-faced just before, truly Norma Jeane turned on like a lightbulb in the presence of important visitors. Her sweet face, a perfect moon face, and her eager blue eyes, and her quick shy smile and manners that made you think of a more subdued Shirley Temple – “Just such an angel!”
There was the pleading in those eyes: Love me! Already, I love you.
Joyce Carol Oates notes in the Author’s Note at the beginning of the novel, that this book is “a radically distilled “life” in the form of fiction”, and that “biographical facts regarding Marilyn Monroe should be sought not in Blonde, which is not intended as a historic document.” So, because of that, it’s hard to know what exactly is truth here and what exactly is artistic license. Sadly, I feel all, or most of it, must be somewhat the truth, or if not the exact truth, is very close to the truth or has the general idea of truth. And that is what makes this book so heartbreaking.
I told myself My new life! My new life has begun! Today it began! Telling myself It’s only now beginning, I am twenty-one years old & I am MARILYN MONROE
Starting out when Norma Jeane was just a young child, Blonde details her upbringing, and her relationship with her mother, who was a paranoid schizophrenic. These early scenes are some of the most difficult to read, as Norma Jeane is subjected to all sorts of abuse. Some abuse is hinted at, others are more obvious, and still more abuse is revealed later. While these early scenes seemed to go on forever (for example, she is still just a young girl at least 100 pages into the book), the focus on these childhood years is necessary to get a full picture of the adult Norma Jeane, how her upbringing impacted her, and how she so easily slipped into addiction.
I was not a tramp or a slut. Yet there was the wish to perceive me that way. For I could not be sold any other way I guess. And I saw that I must be sold. For then I would be desired, and I would be loved.
As Norma Jeane grows up, we see her relationships with various men, and also get a glimpse into her marriages, from her first marriage before she was famous, to her public marriages to Joe DiMaggio (known as “the Ex-Athlete” here), and also Arthur Miller (here indicated as “the Playwright”). It was hard to follow some of these relationships, as many of the characters are noted just by nicknames or letters. For example there are characters who are only named as: V, W, N, Rin Tin Tin, Rumplestiltskin, the Dark Prince, the Sharpshooter, the Gemini, O, C, or the Brunette. This got to be very confusing, and I had trouble following who was who, and which character did what.
Norma Jeane even thinks of herself as Marilyn as “the Blond Actress”, as we learn that Norma Jeane’s greatest role was that of Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn was not Norma Jeane, it was just all a role that she was constantly forced to portray. We see Norma Jeane balk against playing this role again and again, and we see how portraying this blonde bombshell affected her mental state. It is quite fascinating, and I was totally spellbound by the last half of this book.
The actress’s skin wasn’t right, her makeup would have to be removed gently with cold cream and reapplied. Sometimes the hair wasn’t right. (But what could possibly be wrong with hair?) Dampened and reset and again dried with a hand blower. As Norma Jeane sat motionless before the mirror, eyes lowered in prayer.
Please come. Please!
Don’t abandon me. Please!
The very one she’d scorned. This “Marilyn” she despised.
Blonde is very, very long (my copy was 738 pages), and it took me about two months to read this. The beginning was tough for me to get through. It was hard to read about so much abuse, and how Norma Jeane still retained her hope, kindness, and belief in people.
I rated this book 4 stars on Goodreads, and while I loved the book, it was too long and too graphic, which kept it from being a 5 star read. I also dropped a star because of the fact that I couldn’t quite follow who all of the characters were. For example, I thought the Dark Prince was a reference to Clark Gable, but then some scene would happen, and then I’d think the author was referring to Marlon Brando, and then it would refer to Clark Gable again, and I just couldn’t keep the characters straight.
why Some Like It Hot a masterpiece? why Monroe’s masterpiece? why Monroe’s most commercial movie? why did they love her? why when her life was in shreds like clawed silk? why when her life was in pieces like smashed glass? why when her insides had bled out? why when her insides had been scooped out? why when she carried poison in her womb? why when her head was ringing with pain? her mouth stinging with red ants? why when everybody on the set of the film hated her? resented her? feared her? why when she was drowning before their eyes?
Even with all of the graphicness and difficult scenes, I still would totally recommend this to anyone who has an interest in Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe, or strong characters. Just be aware that this book is not for the faint of heart and it will have you looking up pictures of Marilyn Monroe nonstop as the book chronicles her rise and her descent.
Bottom Line: A difficult read, but powerful and heartbreaking.