Thursday, June 2, 2011

Book Review: Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar

Synopsis from

While selling oranges in the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, sweet and sprightly Ellen "Nell" Gwyn impresses the theater's proprietors with a wit and sparkle that belie her youth and poverty. She quickly earns a place in the company, narrowly avoiding the life of prostitution to which her sister has already succumbed. As her roles evolve from supporting to starring, the scope of her life broadens as well. Soon Ellen is dressed in the finest fashions, charming the theatrical, literary, and royal luminaries of Restoration England. Ellen grows up on the stage, experiencing first love and heartbreak and eventually becoming the mistress of Charles II. Despite his reputation as a libertine, Ellen wholly captures his heart-and he hers-but even the most powerful love isn't enough to stave off the gossip and bitter court politics that accompany a royal romance. Telling the story through a collection of vibrant seventeenth-century voices ranging from Ellen's diary to playbills, letters, gossip columns, and home remedies, Priya Parmar brings to life the story of an endearing and delightful heroine.

My Review

4 Stars

Exit the Actress, Priya Parmar's debut novel, is a delightful story of Nell Gywn,  an orange girl turned actress turned royal mistress.   Told through the lens of Nell's diary entries, gossip broadsheets, Privy Council memos and private letters between members of England's royal family - particularly those between King Charles II and his sister, Henriette-Anne 'Minette' - Parmar has painted a vibrant portrait of life in Restoration England.     

The greatest strength of this novel is the wonderful cast of characters the author has brought to life, whether they be figures central to the story or supporting ones.   Parmar's Nell Gwyn is a woman with whom readers would wish to be friends,  making it easy to see how Nell came to be loved by both her audiences and her monarch.   While Charles II is perhaps best remembered by history for his many mistresses and illegitimate children, Parmar has characterized him as a monarch who also cared deeply about his country and subjects.   In addition to Nell and Charles, the novel is supported by a strong cast of secondary characters from the theatre and the royal court, characters who add both humour and drama to the story.   

Although I love English history, the Restoration has never been a period of particular interest to me.   Parmar's novel has changed this.   This novel was smart, funny and above all entertaining.   I look forward to hearing more from Priya Parmar.   

Exit the Actress is definitely worth a read.