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Family Acts    by Louise Shaffer order for
Family Acts
by Louise Shaffer
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2007 (2007)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Katie Harder and Randa Jennings both grew up overshadowed by an actor parent - and christened with names from Shakespeare's plays (Shakespearian quotes are interspersed through the novel's dialog, a delight for those who enjoy his works). Other than that, Katie and Randa have little in common until they learn that they are joint inheritors of the decrepit, though once venerable, Venable Opera House in Massonville, Georgia.

Katie lives in New York. Her mother was All Our Lives soap star Rosalind Harder, who often behaved like 'the diva from the dark side'. Katie has always been associated with the daytime show, first as the star's daughter and later as a writer, but now her agent and old friend Teddy is pushing her to do something creative on her own - she previously wrote a play that garnered good reviews as an off-Broadway production.

Randa lives in Los Angeles. She had a difficult childhood, constantly on the move with her actor father, who - after one disappointment too many - turned into an angry alcoholic. Now Randa has her own daughter Susie - an eleven-year-old child genius with a strong personality - and works as a Hollywood business manager to needy, demanding clients. She also suppresses her own creative instincts, looking for security and an orderly life, to Susie's dismay.

A big spanner is thrown into the works of both their lives, when they learn of their joint legacy. Katie, Randa and Susie all travel to Georgia, the adults planning to quickly unload the white elephant they have surprisingly inherited. It takes a while for them to find out why the property was left to them, and along the way, each falls in love with a local as well as with the Venable Opera House and its creative possibilities.

The story alternates between the modern day and historical vignettes from the lives of previous opera house owners (mostly obsessive and some with dark secrets from cruel manipulation to murder), starting in 1878. But all these people, past and present, share a passion for the theater. As Randa says, 'So you want to talk about what's really useful? I'll put my money on Hamlet, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and Beethoven's Fifth. That stuff has lasted for a reason.'

If you're looking for something very different from the usual family epic, and steeped in the theater setting and in Shakespearian language and drama, then you'll enjoy Family Acts.

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