by Farran Smith Nehme
The Overlook Press
352 pages - 9781468309270
Barnes and Nobble
IndieBound - Your local independent bookstore.
You know her as the Self-Styled Siren and film critic extraordinaire. Now Farran Smith Nehme can add “published novelist” to her resume. Nehme’s debut novel Missing Reels goes on sale in a few weeks but I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Nehme at Book Expo America earlier this year and received a signed advance readers copy of the book.
The story takes place in late 1980s New York. The heroine, 21-year-old Ceinwen (pronounced kine-wen), works at the vintage clothing shop Vintage Visions. She has two roommates Jim and Talmadge and her free time is consumed with all things classic film. Ceinwen is curious about Miriam, the elderly woman living in her apartment building on Avenue C in New York City. When Ceinwen finds out that Miriam is really actress Miriam Clare, the star of a long lost silent film adaptation of The Mysteries of Udolpho, she’s determined to find out more. She wants to learn everything about Miriam’s short-lived acting career and her tragic romance with director Emil Arnheim. Ceinwen gets an important clue about the existence of a director’s cut of The Mysteries of Udolpho and she becomes hell-bent on finding it. You’d think have the film’s leading lady in the same building would be an asset to Ceinwen. However, Miriam is very suspicious of Ceinwen’s motivations and offer her little help. But Miriam gives her enough information to lead Ceinwen on the chase for the lost film.
Missing Reels is a mystery and Ceinwen is the story’s detective. Her love interest, the brilliant yet romantically unavailable mathematician Matthew, is her sidekick and is integral in helping her solve the mystery of the lost film. The new-person-dynamic of Matthew coming into Ceinwen’s life is crucial to the story. He introduces her to the important people who will guide her in her quest. My favorite character is Harry, an older gentleman and mathematician at NYU where Matthew is doing his postdoc. Harry is the anti-thesis to Miriam, takes a liking to Ceinwen and opens up a lot of opportunities for her. Plus his passion for old movies will endear him to any classic film fan. I love this line from the book: “You had to find another love, if you were a mathematician, or you’d have nothing to talk about with regular people.”
There are two distinct audiences for this book: classic film enthusiasts who will understand Ceinwen’s motivations and get all the movie references and a general audience who will appreciate good story-telling and the mystery elements and might learn a few things about film history. There are a lot of movie references: titles, actors, actresses, directors, studios, etc. Folks not well-versed in film history might complain that they don't recognizes the names and titles that appear throughout the text. But I make the same case as I do with Junot Diaz and his usage of Spanish in his short stories and novels: look up what you don’t understand and maybe you'll learn something.
A note to fans of the Self-Styled Siren blog, look for the the Joan Fontaine reference towards the end of the book. Nehme is a big Fontaine fan and I knew there would be at least one reference to her in the novel.
While many of the movie references are real, the “missing reels” in question are fictional. The Brody Institute for Cinephilia and Preservation (archivists and preservationists), The Mysteries of Udolpho (film), Emil Arnheim (director), Miriam Clare/Gibson (actress), Civitas (film studio), etc. are straight from Nehme’s imagination. When you read the book though, they feel like real people and you’ll have to stop yourself from Googling the Brody Institute.
This novel really speaks to Nehme’s devotion to film preservation. When films become destroyed and lost, we lose part of our history along with them. It’s important to preserve them and to keep looking for the lost ones like Ceinwen did with The Mysteries of Udolpho. I love that nitrate is a plot device in the book. It’s flammability and the risk of deterioration adds an element of drama and urgency to the story.
True classic film enthusiasts will appreciate Ceinwen's obsession with finding the lost silent film. In a time before Turner Classic Movies, the internet, DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix and pretty much everything else, Ceinwen indulges her passion for old movies by watching them on VHS, live broadcast TV and at repertory houses. Her research is done at universities, archives, institutes, by phone, by mail and in person. There is no IMDb, no Wikipedia, no blogs and no online archives.
One of the things I really love about the novel it demonstrates the way classic films infiltrate our lives. We compare real life events to scenes from movies. We spot resemblances between people in our lives and Hollywood stars of yesteryear or the characters they played. I also was intrigued by how many of the characters in the book pursued their interest in classic film outside of work. Ceinwen’s day job is in the realm of her interests but its in a toxic environment thanks to her horrible boss. Readers might wonder why Ceinwen devotes so much of her free time to finding the lost silent film. She devotes so much time to it it’s almost like a second job. Classic film fans, especially bloggers, will understand Ceinwen’s motivations. Very few of us make a living off of our interest in film history (in fact only a couple of the characters in the book actually do). In many cases, that’s a good thing. We are not bound by the regulations of a company and can pursue our hobby with complete independence. There is no one telling us what to watch or what to study or what to pursue. It’s the ultimate freedom.
Don’t mistake Missing Reels as just being a missive for the love cinema. It can be appreciated as a good work of straight storytelling and a fine mystery.
Kudos to Farran Smith Nehme for writing a wonderful novel that many of us classic film lovers will enjoy.
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