May 2008

Marisa Atkinson


Three Girls and Their Brother: A Novel by Theresa Rebeck

What would happen if you were plucked out of your humdrum suburban existence and skyrocketed into superstardom just because The New Yorker took it upon itself to print a picture of you and your sisters and declare you the “It Girls of the Twentieth Century”? Would you live happily ever after amid flashbulbs and Dior in your Manhattan penthouse, all of your wildest dreams fulfilled? Or would you and your family find yourselves plummeted into chaos, scandal, and strife, none of you able to recall why you got involved in the mess in the first place?

Three Girls and Their Brother, playwright Theresa Rebeck’s first novel, traces the fallout of the Heller family after the gorgeous, red-ringletted Heller daughters (Polly, 18; Daria, 17; and Amelia, 14) appear in the pages of The New Yorker in just such a spread. The girls exponentially lose control of their lives the higher their stars rise, goaded on by their ex-beauty queen mother and groomed by a manipulative talent agent, while their “non-famous” brother Philip languishes in abandonment. It doesn’t take long before secrets, competition, and jealously pit the girls against one another at home and on the public stage.

Three Girls and Their Brother is narrated in turn by Philip, Amelia, Daria, and Polly. Philip’s narration is by far the most engaging, as his character is delightfully wry and sarcastic, but also observant beyond his years. Readers will root for Philip, a Star Trek-loving 15-year-old who finds himself adrift in what he refers to as the “female menagerie,” valiantly attempting to protect his sisters from the dark underbelly of fame it seems only he is paying any attention to. And though each of the girls has her own set of traits meant to identify her to the reader (Daria is the smart one, Polly is the promiscuous one, Amelia is the child), their narrations could have used a bit more distinction. All three girls, presumably in deference to their youth, pepper their sentences with too many “likes,” and phrase many of their statements as questions. Beyond Daria’s marginally more somber tone, the girls’ voices are nearly indistinguishable from one another.

One of the first questions I had while reading the book was this: Since when is The New Yorker responsible for creating “It Girls”? Isn’t that a bit out of the literary powerhouse’s orbit and the type of fodder more suited to Vogue, People, and OK Magazine?

Apparently it did happen, at least once. Back in 1999, The New Yorker profiled the fairytale life of two as-yet-unknown sisters who lived a gilded life in the Waldorf Hotel, accompanied by a provocative photograph and a label proclaiming them the newest “New York It Girls.” Those girls were an 18-year-old named Paris and a 16-year-old named Nicky. Hilton, that is. On her website, Rebeck says it was this early profile of the Hilton sisters that sparked the idea for her novel. She writes, “I started obsessing about that picture and I got it in my head to write a novel about It Girls, and what it would be like if cultural lightning hit a relatively normal family and relatively normal girls got abducted, more or less, by the media machine, and transformed into It Girls.”

The result is a novel that is alternately biting, tragic, enraging, and hilarious. It has you railing against stage mothers, the paparazzi, and the unforgiving greed of the media machine one minute, and then blushing with guilt when you realize you visited TMZ one too many times today and can’t stop Googling Angelina’s newest baby bump.

Which leads me to wonder what the intended overall message of the book is meant to be. Am I supposed to beware the perils and fleeting nature of instant fame? Read the book as a cautionary tale of the incredible ability of ambition to tear a family apart? Have an eye-opening experience about the voyeurism and ridiculous cult of celebrity? Or am I just supposed to savor the momentary fantasy the way I savor US Weekly and Entertainment Tonight?

Of her own artistic philosophy, Rebeck writes, “As a writer, I have always considered it my job to describe the world as I know it; to struggle toward whatever portion of the truth is available to me… I spend a lot of time thinking about America, who we are as a people and a culture and a nation.”

That’s exactly what this book is: an imagined “peek” behind the velvet curtain of celebrity so many of us seem so fascinated by, reminding us that we never really know the whole story. Which is why it is so apt that the book ends with Polly observing, “Even shooting a movie star is something that just moved into the airwaves and the Internet and the satellites and the atmosphere itself, and the story, even when you think it’s over, it just keeps going.”

Three Girls and Their Brother: A Novel by Theresa Rebeck
Shaye Areheart Books
ISBN: 030739414X
341 Pages