Friday, October 18, 2013

Book Review: I, Rhoda by Valerie Harper and Ivy Pochoda

I loved Rhoda Morgenstern when I was in my early 20s. Initially, I was drawn to Mary Richards, but eventually I came to identify less with Mary's perfect job, perfect hair, perfect boyfriends, and perfect apartment, and more with Rhoda's messy life, okay job, terrible boyfriends, tiny apartment, and weight worries. So I was eager to find out more about Valerie Harper, the actress who embodied her. I listened to this book on audio as Ms. Harper read it herself. It was a little sad that her "Rhoda" Bronx accent was not in evidence, but I got used to it quickly.

Her childhood was great for a child wanting a life on the stage. Her parents were unusually supportive, including allowing Valerie to stay in New York at a housing facility for "working girls" (working in the entertainment industry, not prostitutes!) when her mother and siblings moved back to the West Coast. She was always a dancer and after years of performing in everything from Broadway shows to Radio City Music Hall to industry shows, she and her husband moved to California and a casting director saw her in a play and wanted her to come read for Mary Tyler Moore's new show. Playing Rhoda was her very first role in TV or movies, and the cast and crew and producers were so supportive and familial, it was a dream job. But the dream came to a jarring end years later when starring in her own show, "Valerie," she discovered what life was like when the producers and writers did not even talk to the cast, let alone get along with them. She ended up getting fired, and suing to get her name back. She then divorced, remarried, acted in a lot of made-for-TV-movies, and got back into stage plays, eventually starring in a couple of one-woman shows and playing Golda Meir and Tallulah Bankhead and being nominated for a Tony. Eventually she, like her mother and step-mother, was diagnosed with lung cancer despite never smoking, but she battled that too with her characteristic positive attitude.

I could have skipped the part about EST and their end hunger campaign. Although I liked the parts about when she was fighting for the ERA, so maybe the political parts I didn't like were the ones I disagreed with or wasn't interested in. But that was my only real quibble in the book. Valerie was very positive throughout, talking about her love of her new step-mother, the joys of step-parenting herself, the congenial divorce from her first husband with no drama, and how she adopted her daughter. She has a lot of life-long friends and while there certainly was some name-dropping, that's inevitable for a book on someone in the entertainment industry. (My favorite was when a young man came to do some carpentry work for Valerie, and after he injured himself, she advised him to focus on his acting. Yep, it was Harrison Ford.)

Overall the book was sweet and nice. Not a tearjerker, not a gossip, not much drama or trauma (and this from a woman currently suffering from incurable brain cancer! Although that diagnosis came after the book was released.) It was just a good story well told about a woman who lived an interesting life and met some interesting people along the way. If you're a fan, you'll enjoy it.

I downloaded this book from Audible.

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