I don't follow celebrity culture. I rarely go to the movies. I don't even own a TV. I don't read fashion or entertainment magazines, and on those rare occasions where I pick one up (in the waiting room at the doctor's office, say), I don't have any idea who half the people featured are. So for me, reading Alice Clayton's Redhead series is almost like reading sci-fi or paranormal romance -- the characters might as well be aliens or nonhuman creatures, for their lives and priorities and motivations make no sense to me.
The Redhead Plays Her Hand is the last of the trilogy featuring the romance between 33-year-old Grace Sheridan and 24-year-old Jack Hamilton. Grace is a newcomer to Hollywood, though her star is on the rise: she's been cast as the lead in a cable television series billed as "a cross between Glee, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and Sex and the City." (Of these three, the only one I've ever seen is Glee: I watched some of the first season while on maternity leave with my oldest son, now three, and I haven't seen it since. This is how out-of-touch I am with celebrity culture.) Jack is Hollywood's latest It Boy, a young British actor whose fame has exploded after he stars in a wildly successful movie "based on a series of popular erotic short stories" involving time-travel. (Think Robert Pattinson, maybe? -But not as experienced. Robert Pattinson in the midst of the mad hype that surrounded the first Twilight movie release... and actually, I've since read somewhere that this series started as Pattinson fan fiction, though I didn't know that while I was reading.)
The first two books, The Unidentified Redhead and The Redhead Revealed, are about the early days of their relationship. (Both prior books were indie-published in 2010, but book three just came out yesterday, so Clayton's early fans have been waiting a looooong time for this conclusion.) In Unidentified Redhead, the couple first come together and Grace has to address her hangups about the significant age difference between them. In Redhead Revealed, Grace's fledgeling acting career brings her to New York for a play (usually they live in LA), and so the conflict stems from the physical distance and also with Grace working through some baggage from her past, since the director of the play is an old college flame of hers. In both books, Grace is a bit of a basketcase and Jack is actually the mature one, the voice of reason, though he is so young.
The Redhead Plays Her Hand finds the lovers back in LA and their relationship seemingly well-grounded, at least in the beginning, but it doesn't take long for their roles to shift as Jack begins to fall apart under the pressure of his still-new notoriety. Suddenly he's drinking too much, partying every night with a bad boy co-star, and his behavior begins to have an impact on his work, his reputation, and his relationship with Grace. She tries to talk to him about it, but he takes this as nagging and mostly blows her off. Meanwhile, her new television show brings Grace an unprecedented level of notoriety of her own, and not all of it good: her weight becomes an issue (she is described as a curvy size 8) when she is asked to lose fifteen pounds for the role.
This series intrigues me, because what I like about it, and what I dislike, are so deeply entwined they might even be the same thing. I have no interest in celebrity culture, so I don't care and honestly don't really get what motivates these people. They're shallow, consumed by appearances and reputation -- for example, every morning Grace starts her day by reviewing what the gossip websites have to say about her and Jack (imagine, googling yourself every day!) -- which has been an issue for me throughout the series. There is a dishonesty at the core of their relationship, because they're together (and very much in love), but they can't let it be publicly known because it would hurt Jack's career if screaming fangirls knew he was off the market. Throughout all three books, I gritted my teeth at every single scene (and there are a lot of 'em) where they make arrangements to go somewhere but arrive and leave separately, or where they're out in public or semi-public and they're obsessed with maintaining a safe physical distance in case someone snaps a cell phone picture. I just can't buy into any hope for the long-term success of their relationship so long as it's a Big Secret, and I think Grace should have more pride, and Jack should have more guts, than to allow her to be a Big Secret for the sake of his career.
Yet, shallow as they are, gutless as they are, with values and priorities that seem way off the mark measured by my values and priorities -- Grace and Jack are relatable, believable, and you really want their relationship to succeed against all odds (though even at the end, I was never able to silence the voice in my head that doesn't believe any relationship can survive the surreal pressures of celebrity). And as much as I get so impatient with all the namedropping details about what they're wearing and where they're clubbing or dining, I know that part of what makes the story compelling is that Clayton brings us so deeply into Grace's experience, into her head, that we get where she's coming from even though her life is so unbelievably foreign to ours, and the boring namedropping scenes are part of that immersion into Grace's world.
This book, the whole series, has some real flaws -- in addition to the namedropping and the Big Secret that bugs me so much, there are pacing problems and some crimes against grammar -- but it avoids all of the timeworn tropes of the genre (no secret babies, tortured pasts, sexual traumas, big misunderstandings, mistaken identities, wrongful convictions, amnesia, serial killers, special ops, or Navy Seals!) and relies entirely on character-driven and situational conflict, which makes it utterly unique.