Review: ‘Complicit’, by Winnie M Li

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Welcome to Group Text, a monthly column for readers and book clubs about novels, memoirs and short story collections that make you want to talk, ask questions and live a little longer in another world.

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When I first read about Harvey Weinstein’s assaults on young actors in luxury hotels, I couldn’t help but wonder: Who was keeping his calendar? Who booked the suite? Who escorted the women to the door and then kept a low profile, perhaps knowing – or suspecting – what would happen when they left?

In Winnie M Li’s heartbreaking thriller, COMPLICITY (Emily Bestler Books, 405 pages, $27), I found painful reminders that it takes a village to support someone who abuses power. Fair warning: Li doesn’t sugarcoat her subject, and neither should she.

When we meet Sarah Lai, the 39-year-old former Hollywood insider is a film professor at Brooklyn Community College. It’s 2017; the #MeToo movement is gaining momentum; and every morning on the subway to work, she reads about the latest studio boss or screen icon to get her reward. “I recognize names from my previous life,” she tells us. “Some things we can’t bury no matter how much we obscure them with goodie bags, PR statements and smiley photographs.”

Sarah receives an interview request from a New York Times writer who wants to talk to her about her experiences with Hugo North, a British film producer she met while working at Conquest Films in her twenties. From a series of conversations with this reporter, we learn what was at stake for Sarah, who landed that coveted job unrelated (her parents run a “little dim sum outfit in Queens”). As she steps onto the rickety male-dominated ladder she desperately seeks to climb, we see how all but a powerful few are being stepped on their fingers: Sylvia, the founder of the film production company and the overwhelmed mother who hired her; actors whose headshots are scrutinized (“not hot enough”) and cast aside “like a bored magician might deal a deck of cards”; more publicists, managers and agents, all treated as a necessary evil.

While working on her first major film, Sarah befriended Holly Randolph, an ingenue on the cusp of megawatt stardom (I pictured her as Julia Roberts around “Mystic Pizza”). Both are drawn into Hugo’s festive orbit, where women are mostly decorative objects, talented as they are. I wish I needed to provide a spoiler alert, but I don’t think that’s the case: Sarah won’t get the credit she deserves for coming up with a screenplay written by a male colleague. Holly’s trajectory is even more tragic, and Sarah will be haunted by the role she played.

“Complicit” is at its best when Li focuses on the past; sometimes it drags when she zooms out to the present, especially when it comes to blue-blooded reporter Thom Gallagher. However, I loved Li’s cinematic asides – “ominous drum roll” and “If this were a movie, only one card title would now appear on screen: Four years later” – and his timely forays into Sarah’s family life. The Lais are baffled by their daughter’s career path; his sane siblings chose accounting and dentistry. There’s a realistic disconnect between the generations, but also an abrupt tenderness that overshadows the glitz of Sarah’s new life. It’s no wonder Sarah becomes a regular at a family-run Chinese restaurant in a mall while her crew is filming in Los Angeles. The warmth and familiarity of the place makes up for the pain in other parts of his life – and in this book.

  • What would you have done differently if you had been in Sarah’s shoes? Knowing what a gifted storyteller she was, did you hope she would end up writing her own story instead of sharing her experiences with a journalist?

  • From the New York City subway to high school hallways, “If you see something, say something” has become an ever-present reminder to trust your instincts. In the context of ‘accomplice’, why is that so much easier said than done?

She saysby Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey. If you want a crash course in leather journalism and the history of reporting that helped spark the #MeToo movement, this book, by two investigative reporters for The New York Times, is a great place to start. Bonus: the film starring Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan comes out in November.

catch and killby Ronan Farrow. Five days after Kantor and Twohey published their first article on Weinstein’s history of paying women who accused him of sexual harassment, Farrow’s article covering similar territory appeared in The New Yorker. In his book, he recalls his efforts to tell the story. It was supposed to be for NBC, which employed Farrow at the time. Our reviewer Jennifer Szalai wrote, “NBC officials used the institutional levers at their disposal to stop its work on Weinstein — from intermittent discouragement to elaborate obstruction to a legal review that proved both labyrinthine and absurd.

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