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5 Historical Fiction Books About Real Individuals

Cindy Burnett
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The Only Woman in the Room

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict chronicles the long and accomplished life of Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood screen star from the 1940s and 1950s. 

This week, I am sharing five books that tell the story of real people through the lens of historical fiction, a genre sometimes called biographical fiction. These are some of my favorite stories to read because I love learning about actual people and the impact they made on our world but in an often more compelling fashion than nonfiction can be. I especially enjoy books where the author includes an Author’s Note detailing how they told the narrative and what if anything was altered for purposes of storytelling.

The Chanel Sisters by Judithe Little – This gorgeously-written book by Houstonian Judithe Little chronicles the lives of Antoinette and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel from their early years at the convent orphanage in Aubazine, France. Their time at the orphanage left a lasting impression on both girls and forged a determination in Coco to create a better life for herself and to seek entrée into the upper-crust society who refused to accept her. From the days of their hat shop on Rue Cambon in Paris to the years after the war, Little tells the women’s stories through the eyes of Antoinette detailing their friendships, romances, and success in the fashion business. In her Author’s Note, Little includes engaging tidbits about Coco Chanel’s inspiration for her CC symbol which recreated the interlocking loops in Aubazine’s stained glass and for her jewelry which copied the patterns found on the orphanage’s stone floors. Readers will be captivated by this stunning tale.

Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl by Renee Rosen - Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl provides a compelling, behind-the-scenes look at Estée Lauder, the iconic woman who revolutionized the cosmetics industry. Told from the perspective of a fictional friend Gloria Downing, Rosen depicts Lauder’s early days peddling face cream from a New York City hair salon and dreaming of becoming a household name like Revlon and Elizabeth Arden. Lauder’s unrelenting ambition sometimes impacted her personal life in negative ways, but success was always her main goal, and she pursued it doggedly. Today’s cosmetics departments reflect the high level of success she reached, and readers will enjoy learning more about this influential woman who left her mark on this industry.

Learning to See: A Novel of Dorothea Lange, the Woman Who Revealed the Real America by Elise Hooper: Dorothea Lange’s photographs from the Great Depression – and from the Japanese American internment camps to a lesser extent – are iconic and part of the fabric of our culture, but the story of her life is less well known. Hooper’s novel tells Lange’s tale including the sacrifices she made to bring about social change for the less fortunate. Learning to See is a fabulous tale from start to finish, and the inclusion of some of Lange’s photographs at the end of the novel is an added bonus.

Miss Del Rio by Barbara Mujica - Miss Del Rio chronicles the life of famed Hollywood star Dolores Del Rio whose life spanned a number of pivotal moments in history including the Mexican Revolution, the Jazz Age, Golden-Age Hollywood, and World War II. Relayed through Mara, Dolores’ fictional hairdresser and close friend, the novel follows Dolores through a meteoric film career in Hollywood, despite intense racism directed her way, and an intense personal life, which included numerous lovers and husbands, all amid the backdrop of wealth and privilege. When the war intensifies nativism in the United States and non-white stars are ostracized, Dolores finds she must return to Mexico to continue her career. Hollywood fans will enjoy the presence of other screen royalty including Marlene Dietrich and Orson Welles. I read this book in a day and found it absolutely fascinating – I loved learning more about Mexican history, Golden Age Hollywood and what it was like as actors tried to switch from silent films to “talkies”, and the Mexican film industry in the 1940s.

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict - The Only Woman in the Room chronicles the long and accomplished life of Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Keisler), the Hollywood screen star from the 1940s and 1950s. Escaping her Nazi-affiliated husband in the dead of night, she arrives in Hollywood where she launches the acting career for which she is well known. Unable to forget the horrors she witnessed in Austria, she recruits a partner (George Antheil), and they quietly begin work on an invention that she hopes will help the United States win the war against Germany. While the U.S. Navy did not adopt their invention until the 1960s, their work eventually led to the creation of Bluetooth and ultimately WiFi and the cell phone, and she and Antheil were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

For more book recommendations and bookish thoughts, see Cindy’s monthly Buzz Reads column, her Thoughts from a Page Podcast or follow @ThoughtsFromaPage on Instagram. Find upcoming Conversations from a Page events here.

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