The Notorious Pagan Jones is a new book by Nina Berry. It begins a series about a 16-year-old Hollywood starlet, Pagan Jones, with a tarnished reputation. I was intrigued by the premise and when an ARC showed up I jumped into it and was very glad that I did. This book is an utter whirlwind of a ride.
Pagan Jones didn’t have the sweetest of 16th birthdays. While drinking and driving, she inadvertently caused the death of her father and her younger sister. Now, nine months later, she has been sentenced to the Lighthouse Reformatory School for Wayward Girls for manslaughter. She is removed from solitary confinement when she gets the offer of her life while two men, one name Devin Black and one named Jerry Allenberg, come to visit her. Jerry is her father’s lawyer; a man with a deal from a studio that has offered Pagan the role of a lifetime along with her freedom. The other, Devin Black, is her new guardian assigned by the film studio who will ensure that she delivers the goods. Intrigued by the possibility of freedom, and career redemption, Pagan signs the contract and is whisked away to the filming location, West Berlin, Germany.
In 1961 there was a lot of unrest in Berlin. The city had been divided a decade earlier into East and West boroughs, the lines between Communism and Capitalism firmly drawn. There is a threat of a wall being erected to firmly enforce the division. Pagan watches the politics with a keen eye but pretends to ignore it, slipping into her movie star persona. All people know is that Pagan was a child star with an overbearing mother (who has since committed suicide) and a drinking habit that mucked up much of her behind-the-screen life. Had she not been drinking on the night of her birthday the remnants of her family might still be alive, a fact that she can never forget. Now, determined to make a go of the choicest role of her life, she puts on an act that she is much more than she is; carefree, sober, feather-brained, rehabilitated and, more importantly, well-adjusted.
During the book Pagan investigates her own family history. Her grandmother lived in Berlin before coming to the States and she uses the opportunity to find out more about her past. When she encounters resistance, she finds new ways to gain the information that she seeks; information that explains why her father kept a stack of seemingly mundane letters to his wife in his safe years after her suicide. Pagan knows that there is more to these letters than what dwells on the surface and she is determined to find the truth.
Pagan is a narrator that I instantly fell in love with. She is coy and confident yet under the surface brews a sense of unease and bitter tension. Pagan has a lot of PTSD from both the accident and her stint in the reformatory. Berry shows this by many small tells; Pagan’s inability to sleep with pillows on her bed, her struggles with alcoholism and interactions with people, and her panic attacks that arise whenever she is around luxury convertible cars. She is also a tremendous character actress and uses this at every turn to gather information on people and use it to her own advantage. She is far more astute than anyone gives her credit for. She suspects that Devin Black, a man only a few years older than her, is more than what he seems. She gauges her co-workers and her boss with skillful precision and reacts accordingly to their social cues, even those that may hurt her. She is, in fact, a vibrant and brilliant young woman playing dumb the whole time. It’s a fascinating character study that Berry has portrayed.
There’s an interesting dichotomy between her and Devin Black as well. He seems to have a stake in Pagan that lies far beyond a mere guardianship. The two also display a mutual attraction that, were it to come to light, might jeopardize their relationship and her already blackened reputation. Pagan was once in love with a man named Nicky Raven, a popular singer who has since moved on in life and is dating another woman, an apparent copy of Pagan. Pagan knows that she still loves Nicky but she cannot help her growing attraction to Devin Black, a man who Pagan can tell is also putting on an act. The two have tremendous banter and play off of each other quite well. To be frank, I was shipping them the entire story.
I did have one problem with the book – the last 100 pages. I felt that the plot developed in a natural way that made sense, but I was a bit bored by the pacing of the last quarter. I feel that the book could have benefited from a little more editing to sharpen the action towards the end. In this I am clearly in the minority, as most of the reviews that I have read take issue with the first 300 pages of the book and not the latter. This was the part that I reveled in, the beginning. The character development was spot on and the building plot seemed weighty enough to carry a whole series (and I suspect that it will). But, for me, when the ending came it fell flat and it should not have. I can’t even pinpoint what it is that I want to see more of, I just know I felt the lack of it in the end of this book. Perhaps I will get more of what I want in book two and it will completely convert my complaint. This has been known to happen.
Still, this book is fun and thrilling, an up-and-down roller coaster. I loved the people and the placement and the feel of the period. I loved that Berry made a realistic heroine in the 1960’s who felt like a woman of the time and not a modern teenager completely out of context. I loved the atmosphere and the mystery within. I can’t wait for more of Pagan Jones’s adventures. She’s every caper movie starlet and Bond girl fleshed out into brilliance and I loved her so much.
4 out of 5 stars.
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