Being jobless and lovelorn is hard enough without the added
burden of terminal illness. For movie producer Olivia Hunt, the
34-year-old protagonist of “The True and Outstanding
Adventures of the Hunt Sisters,” a bad season in Hollywood is
made worse with the news that her sister has leukemia.
Olivia’s initial feelings of despair and denial set the tone
for real-life film producer Elisabeth Robinson’s
semi-autobiographical first novel.

Through Olivia’s voice, we meet an array of characters,
including her handsome ex-boyfriend Michael and her best friend
Tina. Though we’re given glimpses of Olivia’s neurotic
mother and alcoholic father, the real star is Maddie,
Olivia’s optimistic kid sister. Robinson’s narrative is
woven entirely through Olivia’s sometimes shell-shocked but
always heartfelt letters, e-mails and faxes to friends,
acquaintances and Hollywood associates.

Before Olivia can come to terms with Maddie’s illness, she
must first come home. For Maddie and her high school sweetheart
husband, home is Shawnee Falls, Ohio, the place where the Hunt
sisters grew up. Helping her sister through chemotherapy and into
remission, Olivia finds her own life taking unexpected turns. With
a film adaptation of “Don Quixote” in the works and a
rekindling of her relationship with Michael, Olivia is forced to
match the weight of her struggles against those of her sister,
reinventing herself in an attempt to find peace.

It would be easy to call Robinson’s book a Hollywood
novel. Certainly it is where Hollywood is concerned that
Robinson’s firsthand experience is wielded most handily. She
was a producer on “Braveheart” and “Last
Orders” and clearly knows the ins-and-outs of what it takes
to make a Hollywood film. Descriptions of the long hours and the
stress of acting as the director-studio go-between is fascinating,
and appearances by Robin Williams and John Cleese help to narrow
the gap between fact and fiction. But pigeonholing the book into
the Hollywood genre (already perfected by Elmore Leonard and
others) would only make light of the emotional weight that Robinson
is so clearly after.

Unfortunately for Robinson, neither the attentive rendering of
Hollywood nor the more sobering scenes from the cancer ward can
save the characters, many of whom are largely two-dimensional.
Handsome Michael, for instance, suffers from a lack of exposure; we
simply don’t see enough of him. His surrogate, the charming
British director of Olivia’s film, is similarly undeveloped.
The resulting narrative is lopsided by lovey-dovey odes to male
characters we hardly know. The prose is so melodramatic in places,
it might have been lifted from a Nora Roberts novel.

Certainly though, Robinson’s book is not without appeal.
The sisters’ relationship feels authentic and Maddie’s
graceful stoicism is never overdone. Ultimately it is at the heart
of Olivia and Maddie’s relationship that we begin to sense
what Robinson was after in the first place: a novel about the
crisis of faith and the beginnings of grief. All this is to say
that the book tries hard but falls just short of earning its
tearjerker ending. Such a conclusion, along with the slickly
written e-mails and letters that precede it, will no doubt win over
a large and grateful audience.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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