Wally Lamb’s sixth novel, “I’ll Take You There,” launches with a premise so blatantly contrived you just have to go with it: The ghost of silent-era Hollywood director Lois Weber appears to film scholar Felix Funicello in a vintage theater to show him the movie of his life. It’s “preserved on film,” she explains. (Somehow you knew it would not be digital.) “And these films come with a special feature. … You will have the ability to re-enter your past, not just view it on the screen.”
Before you can say “rerun,” Felix is watching and then re-entering his childhood, helpfully titled “The Life of Felix Funicello: July-August 1959.” He is 6, and big sisters Simone and Frances are taking him to the movies. En route, the sisters are thrilled to see that one of this year’s finalists for the Rheingold beer beauty contest is local girl Shirley Shishmanian, her ethnic name now changed to Dulcet Tone. Frances immediately makes it her business to get Shirley/Dulcet elected, dragging Felix along to canvass door to door in their Connecticut home town. After all, what greater honor could a young woman in the 1950s aspire to than to win “some stupid, sexist New York beauty contest”?
That disparaging description comes in the novel’s present-day setting from Felix’s daughter, Aliza. She’s a staff writer at New York magazine, and she is none too thrilled to have the history of Miss Rheingold as her first big feature assignment. Her father, who seemed rather nostalgic about the world of his youth when he chronicled it in Lamb’s 2009 novella “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” has since acquired a harder-edged view. Invited by Lois Weber to narrate his life-film “as if you’re explaining the sights as they were back then to a young woman living in today’s world,” Felix makes sure to tell us that abortions and the Pill were illegal, and the rest of his narrative says little good about women’s options “back then.”
We learn a lot more about Felix’s sisters, the Miss Rheingold contest (courtesy of Aliza’s New York magazine article, printed in full) and the conflict between third- and second-wave feminists (courtesy of a blog post by Aliza). Amazingly, from this mishmash of materials (including a fair dose of liberal platitudes), Lamb manages to spin a family yarn compelling enough so that you may not notice that the life-on-film conceit drops away about 100 pages short of the end, after Ingrid Bergman’s out-of-the-blue appearance to provide a canned history of the year 1965.
Lamb keeps events whizzing by so fast that there is not time to stop and think, “Wait — what?” More to the point, his affection for these characters is so palpable, his intentions so palpably good, that it’s hard not to be touched by this sweet-natured novel.
Wendy Smith reviewed this book for The Washington Post.