The Comeback by Ella Berman is published by the Berkley Publishing Group. The novel follows the life of 23-year -old actress Grace Turner. From a young age, she has been on the silver screen, tied to a director who views her as his muse. She has everything anyone in L. A. would kill for; fame, money, status, and beauty. However, right when she was about to become a household name, she disappeared without a trace for a year.
It is within this year where readers start to learn who Grace Turner is. We find her secluded at her parent’s house in Anaheim. She comments that she is there to hide from her life as Grace Turner. She wants to shed her Hollywood persona and become Grace Hyde again. Grace Hyde is the person she was before the fame and before her life crumbled under the weight of her mental health issues. Berman’s layout of Grace’s disconnection of self in The Comeback provides subtle context to clue readers into Grace’s depression. Quickly, I can see that not only myself but a multitude of other readers will be able to relate to her. We are consistently in her head. All Grace is striving for, while away from the life she’s created, is normalcy and peace. However, there is a weight always bringing her back down to tears and emptiness.
I found that even though the troubles of this teen star aren’t directly stated, it is clear to see that Grace is a victim of intense manipulation at the hands of her long-time director, Able Yorke. When her mother asks her when she will leave their house to return to her stardom, the mention of Able strikes immediate fight or flight responses within her. Her sense of safety is overridden by her desire to drown out every feeling connected to memories of him. The back and forth storytelling helps the audience piece together the complex relationship that she has with her abuser. Since she was a kid, she felt inadequate with the attention she received from her immediate peers and her parents. One day when she auditions for a role in a film trilogy and gets it, all of her desires for more attention are met. Imagine you’re deprived of attention and care from your parents, and you have one person consistently telling you that they would do nothing but protect you, care for you, and that no one else understands you. That is how Able Yorke trapped Grace.
It’s harrowing and raw having to read instances of Grace being manipulated by Able. If she expressed uneasiness about a scene, Able would sigh and convince Grace that she was overthinking everything. He would say that her anxiety is unfounded. She is privileged to be working with him and he never lets her forget it. She’s so special, so beautiful, and so selfish for causing him harm and putting a film on pause because she is acting out. These flashbacks to Grace’s past made feel so sick with the way that I remembered similar words being spat to me as I was involved with someone who used power dynamics to manipulate me. The intense ease and straightforward nature of this dialogue hit way too close to home. It’s no wonder that present-day Grace wants to do nothing but forget. I, too, also wanted to forget who I was and wished the skin I breathed through wasn’t my own.
The Comeback continues to become a harder read as we discover that by the age of 16, Able starts to sexually assault Grace. Usually, if there are graphically written scenes of assault that are gratuitous, I will put a book down. However, I applaud Berman’s approach to discussing this difficult subject. Berman does not write in any scenes aside from letting readers know that these instances did occur. Instead, her entire focus is on Grace’s internal struggles and feelings. Not only does this allow for a more personal understanding of Grace but it does not alienate readers who have also experienced similar things. I hurt so much for Grace because it is so clear to see how her abuser has controlled her life for years. The privilege she receives as his film muse also leads her down the path of alcoholism and substance use. She does not want to be this person. She does not want to be in her skin because Able has tainted her sense of safety and dignity. He even goes so far as to gaslight her and convince her that all of this was occurring because it’s what she wanted.
Power dynamics are so well-written that it seems obvious that Berman researched very thoroughly the ways people cope with the abuse. If you strip Grace of her fame, status, and substance abuse, her reality is distressing. She saw that she needed to go away, to not be tied to him, to not be his muse and the real heart of the novel emerges. As the story progresses, Grace attempts to get her life back on track. This includes fixing all of the relationships she abandoned on her year-long absence; her publicist, her sister, her best friends, and most importantly, a man she married thinking that he could save her but he didn’t. It is jarring for her to come back to the “real” world. In the land of Hollywood, her chance at recovering in private is riddled with paparazzi wanting to get exclusives on her comeback. Her year away as made her forgotten how bloodthirsty and invasive fame is and how toxic it has been for her.
Grace’s path to becoming whole again is tough and Berman does not keep the mood light. But, there is so much heart put into this story. I would not recommend this book to everyone necessarily. With a topic as personal and triggering as sexual assault, I think it would be easy for people to say it does not encompass their experience accurately, it did not do enough or it did not say enough. However, I believe that Berman crafted a very great fictional character work that resonated deeply with me. Her deep dive into Grace Turner’s psyche and her coping skills was intricate and well researched. Reading The Comeback felt as if I was breathing a breath of fresh air. Through Grace, I saw myself despite the lifestyle differences. With incredible characterization and empathy, The Comeback struck a chord that a lot of women’s fiction I’ve read hasn’t. Releasing everywhere on August 11th, 2020 be sure to preorder it through Penguin Random House.