A Woman Of Integrity

J David Simons

Freight, £9.99

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Review by Allan Hunter

IN THE post-truth era of alternative facts and fake news the very concept of integrity seems charmingly old-fashioned. The desire to be true to yourself and to an unshakeable set of values lies at the heart of J David Simons’ precisely crafted novel in which he delicately plaits the fortunes of two women. Silent screen star Georgie Hepburn refuses to sacrifice her principles for the promise of a glittering Hollywood career and subsequently flourishes as a pioneering wartime pilot and admired photographer. Years after Georgie’s death, fiftysomething film star Laura Scott is obliged to question her choices and desires as she attempts to reinvent herself as a stage performer in a one-woman show on Georgie’s life.

Simons lets these two lives unfold in alternating, bite-sized chapters that are as dainty as the cucumber sandwiches served in a traditional afternoon tea. Equal weight is given to both women and the succession of cliffhanger endings has the feel of a daily serial. Georgie is the more substantial, appealing figure with a nobler struggle in her career-killing refusal to succumb to the casting couch blandishments of a big shot Hollywood producer. Her life spans the 20th century in a manner familiar from such William Boyd novels as Sweet Caress and Any Human Heart. It is filled with tragic love affairs, guilty secrets, betrayals, grand gestures and the contradictions of someone constantly rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous (Alfred Hitchcock, Amy Johnson and John Wayne among others) and yet steadfast in protecting her own privacy. Her story is told in extracts from an unpublished memoir and the transcripts of a rare Radio 4 interview for the BBC recorded shortly before her death.

Laura’s travails seem more mundane as she finds herself on the wrong side of 50 in a profession that still seems to value youth and beauty over age and experience. Film roles are hard to find and her most recent employment was providing the voice of a crab in a Disney animated feature. Finances are shaky, her on again, off again romance with movie bad boy Jack Muirhead is uncertain and the future is decidedly cloudy until she starts to research her show on Georgie. Laura’s story revolves around a search for artistic integrity and the price it exacts, even if that price is rejecting an easy pay cheque with a supporting role in the unlikely all-star Hollywood epic The Boston Tea Party.

Laura is engaging but less compelling. There seems to be much less at stake in her life and there are times when you grow impatient to race on and return to the next instalment of Georgie. Simons does manage to bring the two lives closer together, teasing out the parallels between the women and the unexpected connections that reach across the decades.

There is a great deal of discipline and rigour in his writing; no chapter is more than a few pages long, and yet he offers enough plot and emotional heft to move everything forward and contribute to a growing sense of a bigger picture. His technique ultimately pays dividends as the twin stories gather towards a resolution that is cleverly handled and satisfying. A Woman Of Integrity is a very civilised, pleasingly unsentimental novel in which Simons confidently assumes the mantle of Elizabeth Taylor in creating nuanced, soul-searching tales of women that are propelled by moral dilemmas and the struggle for self-realisation.