Title: Exit the Actress
Author: Priya Parmar
Release Date: February 1, 2011
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5
Ellen Gwyn is a working class girl living in London in the mid-to-late 1600s. She finds work selling oranges in front of the theater and is relieved - after all, her worst nightmare is to become a prostitute like her sister, Rose. Her dazzling wit and charm impress those at the theater, and it isn’t long before Nell is asked to work as a supporting actress. As her star rises farther than she ever thought it could, Nell catches the eye of the king, and all of London begins to wonder whether he might be interested in her.
I don’t know much about Ellen “Nell” Gwyn, except for the fact that she was a royal mistress of Charles II, so the prospect of learning more about her intrigued me. I have to admit, though, when I first started this novel, I was hesitant. It’s told in a diary format, which doesn’t usually appeal to me, and it took me awhile to really get into the narrative. However, I’m glad I stuck with it because I was rewarded with a delightful protagonist, wonderful historical details, and an entertaining glimpse into life at court and behind the scenes at the theater.
Nell was simply a wonderful heroine in Exit the Actress. She was spunky and smart, and I couldn’t help but love her. I really appreciated Parmar’s ability to write a sympathetic woman with a mind of her own. Nell walked a very fine line in this book, trying to maintain her reputation while also enjoying life and living every moment to the fullest. I thought she was very well crafted and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know her.
Priya Parmar is clearly a talented author, and she did a wonderful job with her debut novel. As I mentioned before, the novel is told in a diary format, and I was surprised at how well done it was, considering I don’t usually take to books written in this way. In between Nell’s entries are announcements, royal letters, and gossip columns, such that the reader receives a broad and varied view of what life was like at the time. Through Nell’s experiences, the reader gets to see both how the poor live, as well as the sumptuousness of court. Parmar’s historical details are excellent, and it’s clear she undertook a substantial amount of research before writing this story.
The glimpses the reader received of Charles II were also tantalizing. This novel takes place at a very interesting time in English history - Charles II’s father, Charles I, had been executed by Oliver Cromwell after the English Civil War. After an unsuccessful experiment with democracy, Charles II was restored and the monarchy continued. The reader can see that these experiences have really affected Charles II, but also that he hides it extremely well. I appreciated how the novel focused on Nell, yet still took the broader history into account.
Exit the Actress is a charming novel that I highly recommend to any fans of historical fiction. Though Nell is immediately loveable, it takes some time for the story to start, but I encourage readers to stick with the book. You’ll be rewarded with a wonderful story and a well-researched look into 17th century England.