From Dust to Stardust: A Novel
- By Kathleen Rooney
- Lake Union Publishing
- 285 pp.
- Reviewed by Bárbara Mujica
- December 1, 2023
The captivating tale of a Jazz Age ingenue.
In the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry stands a one-ton miniature Fairy Castle, the project of Hollywood star Colleen Moore, one of the most successful actresses of the silent-film era and early 1930s. Moore had the castle, which is filled with exquisite tiny furniture and objects, built over many years. In her mesmerizing From Dust to Stardust, Kathleen Rooney recreates Moore’s story, fictionalizing it and changing the protagonist’s name to Eileen Sullivan, yet maintaining the salient points of the real actress’ personal and professional life.
The novel is structured around a series of interviews the actress gives to Gladys, a museum employee who has asked her to provide the narration for the Fairy Castle display. As she describes each room, Eileen — now known by the screen name Doreen O’Dare — also elucidates her own past.
A movie-crazed kid from Chicago, 14-year-old Eileen/Doreen wins the opportunity to go to Hollywood and (against her mother’s wishes) travels west with her always-supportive grandmother, Granny Shaughnessy. A smart, tough Irishwoman, Granny instills in Doreen a love of fairies. For Granny, they are as real as the policeman on the corner:
“Each spring she scattered mayflowers…on our windowsills and thresholds to gain the passing favor of the secretive beings she called the Good People…Granny believed in entreating both God and the Good People for what they could give.”
Granny’s unwavering faith in the Good People imbues the novel with a kind of “Irish magical realism.” Her tales ignite the imagination of her granddaughter, who from early childhood begins to collect miniature objects, always insisting on top-quality materials.
In Hollywood, Doreen enjoys the independence her controlling mother, Agnes, never afforded her. She plunges into the movie lifestyle, going to parties, discovering sex, and breaking all her mother’s rules.
In the 1920s, Hollywood was in its infancy, a world without rules. It was “run by a pack of children, or at least by the childlike: those who had not yet lost the capacity for wonder, who could dream during the daytime, who refused to draw a line between what was real and what was possible.” The “anything goes” atmosphere allows Doreen to blossom.
Ambitious and hardworking, she soon rises to the top despite Agnes’ gloomy predictions. Doreen takes direction, learns from other actors, and tries different film genres. Under the guidance of producers and directors who know how to exploit her natural talent and girlish good looks, she almost overnight becomes the darling of the Jazz Age — the cute flapper known for her bobbed hair, carefree manner, and irresistible charm.
Doreen is not entirely naïve, however. She is not blind to the corruption and greed that permeate the movie industry, but the promise of adventure and the chance to develop her creativity keep her from souring on Tinseltown. Furthermore, she has proved her mother wrong. She is a success, and she remains an optimist. Now that Doreen is able to help her family financially, even Agnes recognizes that she has indeed realized her dream, just as Granny said she would.
At her 19th-birthday celebration, Doreen meets a fascinating man. Jack Flanagan is only 27 and already an influential press representative for First National Studio. Handsome and self-confident, he sweeps Doreen off her feet, appealing to both her romantic longings and her ambition: A good pressman will be able to promote her career still further.
Friends caution her that Jack has a drinking problem, but Doreen is too captivated to heed their warnings. Despite Agnes’ misgivings, she marries him. Predictably, the man who is affectionate, charming, and generous when sober turns mean and violent when drunk. Jack becomes so unhinged during his binges that he tries to kill Doreen. In the most harrowing scene of the novel, he dangles her from a tall building far above the street:
“He…tore the curtains from their rod and flung the window wide. I watched the scene as if it were my own movies, from a degree of eerie remove. The hero — the villain? — was about to drop the heroine sixteen stories from the window of the Ambassador Hotel. The heroine began to weep and plead…”
Understandably, Doreen becomes disillusioned not only with her marriage but also with Hollywood. She gives up acting and devotes herself almost entirely to the construction of the Fairy Castle, assembling a wide array of precious miniatures with the help of movie-industry friends. At the time, America was in the throes of the Depression. “Some critics scolded me,” remarks Doreen, “for building something fanciful at a time of real hardship, a dollhouse when we needed public works.” But, she responds, “a great nation ought to have both.” Throughout her life, Doreen, like Granny Shaughnessy, has combined the practical with the fantastical.
Rooney’s beautifully written novel captures the enchantment and promise of early Hollywood as well as the nefarious forces lurking in the shadows. Above all, From Dust to Stardust is an anthem to the power of the human spirit to transcend the everyday, the negative, and the debilitating — those realities that drag us down — and to dream.
Bárbara Mujica is a novelist, essayist, short-story writer, and critic. Her latest novel, Miss del Río, based on the life of Mexican movie star Dolores del Río, was named one of the best books of 2022 by Library Journal and one of the five best recent historical novels by the Washington Post. Mujica’s novel Frida, based on the tumultuous relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, was an international bestseller published in 18 languages. Sister Teresa, based on the life of the Spanish saint Teresa de Avila, was adapted for the stage by the Actors Studio in Los Angeles. Her novel I Am Venus revolves around the identity of the mysterious model for the Rokeby Venus, the only extant female nude by Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Mujica’s story collections are Imagining Iraq, an Amazon bestseller, Far from My Mother’s Home, and Sanchez across the Street. Her Collateral Damage: Women Write about War is a compendium of writings on the trauma of war. Mujica has won numerous prizes for her writing, including the E.L. Doctorow International Fiction Competition, the Pangolin Prize, and the Pioneer Prize from Dialogue on Diversity. She is a two-time Pushcart nominee. She is also a professor emerita at Georgetown University who specializes in early modern Spain and is the author of numerous books and articles on Spanish theater, mysticism, the counterreformation, and women’s writing. In 2022, her book Women Religious and Epistolary Exchange in the Carmelite Reform won the GEMELA Prize for best book of the year on early modern Hispanic women.