Review: ‘Complicit,’ by Winnie M Li


Welcome to Group Text, a monthly column for readers and book clubs about the novels, memoirs and short-story collections that make you want to talk, ask questions and dwell in another world for a little bit longer.

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When I first read about Harvey Weinstein’s assaults on young actors in luxury hotels, I couldn’t help wondering: Who kept his calendar? Who booked the suite? Who escorted the women to the door and then made themselves scarce, perhaps knowing — or suspecting — what would happen when they left?

In Winnie M Li’s harrowing thriller, COMPLICIT (Emily Bestler Books, 405 pp., $27), I found painful reminders that it takes a village to prop up a person who abuses power. Fair warning: Li doesn’t sugarcoat her subject, nor should she.

When we meet Sarah Lai, the 39-year-old former Hollywood insider is a film teacher at Brooklyn Community College. It’s 2017; the #MeToo movement is gathering steam; and every morning on the subway to work she reads about the latest studio head or screen icon to get his comeuppance. “I recognize names from my earlier life,” she tells us. “Some things we cannot bury, no matter how much we obscure them with gift bags and PR statements and smiling photographs.”

Sarah receives an interview request from a New York Times writer who wants to talk to her about her experiences with Hugo North, a British film producer whom she crossed paths with while working at Conquest Films in her 20s. From a series of conversations with this reporter, we learn what was at stake for Sarah, who landed this coveted job without any connections (her parents run a “scrappy little dim sum outfit in Queens”). As she gets her footing on the rickety, male-dominated ladder she’s desperate to climb, we see how all but a powerful few are having their fingers stepped on: Sylvia, the founder of the film production company and overstretched mother who hired her; actors whose headshots are scrutinized (“not hot enough”) and cast aside “the way a bored magician might deal through a deck of cards”; plus publicists, managers and agents, all treated like a necessary evil.

While working on her first big movie, Sarah becomes friendly with Holly Randolph, an ingénue on the cusp of megawatt stardom (I pictured her as Julia Roberts circa “Mystic Pizza”). The two of them are pulled into Hugo’s hard-partying orbit, where women are mostly decorative objects, no matter how talented they are. I wish I needed to provide a spoiler alert, but I don’t think I do: Sarah won’t get the credit she deserves for punching up a script written by a male colleague. Holly’s trajectory is even more tragic, and Sarah will be haunted by the part she played.

“Complicit” is at its best when Li focuses on the past; occasionally it drags when she zooms out to the present, especially when it comes to the blue-blooded reporter, Thom Gallagher. However, I loved Li’s cinematic asides — “ominous drumroll” and “If this were a film, a single card title would now come up onscreen: Four Years Later” — and her well-timed forays into Sarah’s family life. The Lais are baffled by their daughter’s career path; her sensible siblings have chosen accounting and dentistry. There’s a realistic disconnect between the generations but also a brusque tenderness that outshines the tinsel of Sarah’s new life. It’s no wonder that Sarah becomes a regular at a family-owned Chinese restaurant in a strip mall while her crew is filming in Los Angeles. The warmth and familiarity of the place balance out the pain in other parts of her life — and in this book.

  • What would you have done differently if you were in Sarah’s shoes? Knowing what a gifted storyteller she was, were you hoping she’d end up writing her own account instead of sharing her experiences with a reporter?

  • From the New York City subway to the halls of high schools, “If you see something, say something” has become a ubiquitous reminder to trust your gut. In the context of “Complicit,” why is it so much easier said than done?

She Said,” by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey. If you want a crash course in shoe-leather journalism and the back story on the reporting that helped spark the #MeToo movement, this book, by two investigative reporters for The New York Times, is a great place to start. Bonus: The movie starring Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan is coming out in November.

Catch and Kill,” by Ronan Farrow. Five days after Kantor and Twohey published their first article about Weinstein’s history of paying off women who accused him of sexual harassment, Farrow’s piece covering similar territory appeared in The New Yorker. In his book, he recalls the lengths he went to in order to tell the story. It was meant to be for NBC, which employed Farrow at the time. Our critic Jennifer Szalai wrote, “NBC officials used the institutional levers at their disposal to shut down his work on Weinstein — from intermittent discouragement to elaborate stonewalling to a legal review that turned out to be both labyrinthine and absurd.”



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