And by rebroadcasting episodes to accommodate her pregnancy, Ball gave birth to TV reruns, ensuring that generations of people would fall in love with her. Indeed, for millions of us fans, Lucy’s antics feel as familiar as our own family legends.
For Strauss, Lucille Ball and family legend intersect in a very particular way. In 1966, Ball and Darin’s grandfather, Isidore “Izzy” Strauss, happened to be guests at a ceremony on Coney Island. The real estate developer Fred Trump, our president’s father, wanted everyone to see his demolition of Steeplechase Park. Celebrity guests were invited to throw bricks at the windows. Trump drove a bulldozer. According to a brief story in the New York Times, six young women wearing bikinis “stood in the bulldozer scoop and drank champagne toasts.” After that orgy of destruction, Trump’s plans for the Coney Island site failed — an uncanny preview of what his son would later do to America. For Strauss, though, the possibility that his grandfather might have met Lucille Ball served as a spark for this curious new novel.
Much of Ball’s adult life, including her transformation of the television industry, is recounted here. But if you want a biography of the comedian, look elsewhere. Strauss freely confesses in the afterword, “I changed a lot of facts.” Like “Rodham,” Curtis Sittenfeld’s recent reimagining of the life of Hillary Clinton, “The Queen of Tuesday” is attentive to history but not bound by it. (And like Sittenfeld, Strauss imagines steamy details about his protagonist’s sex life.) So much of what “The Queen of Tuesday” describes hews to the general outlines of our cultural memory that it’s easy to elide Strauss’s creative license, but the alterations start right on the title page: “I Love Lucy” ran on Mondays — not Tuesdays.
Some readers will no doubt feel that Strauss has got some ’splainin’ to do. But if you give yourself over to his premise, “The Queen of Tuesday” is a striking exploration of how fame confounds the lives of prominent and obscure people.
When the story opens, Ball’s Hollywood days have sputtered out. Nearing 40, she’s too old anyway. She thinks about crawling back to Upstate New York and just giving up on the biz — and on her philandering husband, Desi Arnaz. But she’s got one more last-ditch scheme to save her career and her marriage: a TV comedy starring her and Desi. It’s an impossible blend of ambition and romance, sure to fail and bankrupt them, too. But in that moment of nagging doubts, Strauss looks ahead to the show that will transform the industry and their lives: “They will make their ideas of marriage into the universal idea of marriage.”
Early in “The Queen of Tuesday,” Strauss creates a brilliant glance-by-glance re-creation of the first broadcast episode of “I Love Lucy.” We’re right there in the studio, not just laughing with the audience but moving in Lucille’s head, feeling the electric tension that’s equally hilarious and terrifying. For a half-hour, all the doubts and resentments and hurts of her actual marriage must be papered over with the comic anxieties and sloppy affection of her TV marriage. “The theme song has finished,” Strauss writes. “The ovation hasn’t.” People in the audience are dancing in the aisles. “Lucille closes her eyes. Her fantasy has quit humming ’round her head; it’s now loose into the world.”
Strauss conjures up those heady days of “I Love Lucy” with such vibrancy that it’s impossible not to hope that everything might work out after all. But of course, as America falls in love with the hilarious Ricardos, Lucille and Desi grow more alienated from each other. The pressure to appear infatuated only heightens her resentment and provokes more outlandish acts of betrayal from Desi. Perhaps no star has ever had to contend so powerfully, so constantly with her own fictional persona as Lucille Ball.
Admittedly, this is well-trod celebrity gossip, though exceptionally well told. But what makes “The Queen of Tuesday” so peculiar and fascinating is the story that Strauss weaves through it about his grandfather, Izzy. In this fantastical plotline, Lucille and Izzy make contact only a handful of times, but during those secret trysts, they each become infatuated with something the other one offers. For America’s most popular TV star, Izzy represents the delicious possibility of anonymity and total devotion. “His normality is what excites and frightens her,” Strauss writes.
But for Izzy, Lucille comes to represent something both invigorating and poisonous. Having experienced that red-haired bedazzlement, Strauss’s grandfather returns home to find his own marriage and family insufferably drab. It’s not fair, it’s not kind, and Izzy knows it — and Strauss pursues his grandfather’s moral torment through cycles of self-pity and self-reproach, acknowledging the man’s pain just as clearly as he probes the man’s weakness. “Isidore is too decent to blame his wife for his dissatisfaction,” Strauss writes. “That’s what he tells himself.” If he were only a bit more of a cad, he’d have it easy. But he’s stuck: just good enough to know how rotten he is. “He understands what having an affair means for people he cares about. It means he’s making a choice to be recklessly disrespectful.”
What an impossibly daring premise for a novel — an act of almost Lucy-level audaciousness: to imagine that you could push your grandfather into the life story of the most famous comedian of the 20th century. Re-creating that TV legend in all her remarkable detail is essential, but not enough. What really keeps “The Queen of Tuesday” flying is that Strauss understands that the private romance enjoyed by the star and his grandfather is equally tragic and poignant.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
The Queen of Tuesday
A Lucille Ball Story
By Darin Strauss
Random House. 315 pp. $27