"The best possible combination of Hemingway and Agatha Christie — a gorgeously written story about the landscape and risks of Africa, whose edge-of-your-seat plot makes it impossible to put down.”
—Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Wish You Were Here
Tanzania, 1964. When Katie Barstow, A-list actress, and her new husband, David Hill, decide to bring their Hollywood friends to the Serengeti for their honeymoon, they envision giraffes gently eating leaves from the tall acacia trees, great swarms of wildebeests crossing the Mara River, and herds of zebras storming the sandy plains. Their glamorous guests—including Katie’s best friend, Carmen Tedesco, and Terrance Dutton, the celebrated Black actor who stars alongside Katie in the highly controversial film Tender Madness—will spend their days taking photos, and their evenings drinking chilled gin and tonics back at camp, as the local Tanzanian guides warm water for their baths. The wealthy Americans expect civilized adventure: fresh ice from the kerosene-powered ice maker, dinners of cooked gazelle meat, and plenty of stories to tell over lunch back on Rodeo Drive.
What Katie and her glittering entourage do not expect is this: a kidnapping gone wrong, their guides bleeding out in the dirt, and a team of Russian mercenaries herding their hostages into Land Rovers, guns to their heads. As the powerful sun gives way to night, the gunmen shove them into abandoned huts and Katie Barstow, Hollywood royalty, prays for a simple thing: to see the sun rise one more time. A blistering story of fame, race, love, and death set in a world on the cusp of great change, The Lioness is a vibrant masterpiece from one of our finest storytellers.
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 12, 1961
Place of Birth:White Plains, New York
Read an Excerpt
Hollywood royalty gathered Saturday night at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Katie Barstow wed Rodeo Drive gallerist David Hill. The two of them left afterward for Paris and then the wilds of Africa on a “safari.” Rumor has it that the actress is bringing along an entourage into the jungle that will include her brother and sister-in-law, Billy and Margie Stepanov; her agent, Peter Merrick; her publicist, Reggie Stout; actress Carmen Tedesco and her husband, Felix Demeter; and Katie’s friend and co-star in the still controversial Tender Madness, Terrance Dutton. The little group has nicknamed themselves the Lions of Hollywoodthough anyone who knows Katie Barstow or has seen her on the screen understands that she is the lioness in charge of this pride.
The Hollywood Reporter, November 9, 1964
She was watching the giraffes at the watering hole after breakfast, no longer as awed by their presence as she’d been even four days ago, when she’d first seen a great herd of them eating leaves from a copse of tall umbrella acacia, their heads occasionally bobbing up to stare back, unfazed and not especially alarmed by the humans. Their eyes were sweet. Their horns were the antennae on a child’s extraterrestrial Halloween mask. The inscrutable creatures were wary of these humans, but they felt no need to flee.
They’d just finished breakfast and were still at their camp. Her husband, David, was on her left, and her brother, Billy, was on her right. Both had their cameras out. Terrance was sitting nearby with his notebook on his knees, sketching the creatures. Katie had known that Terrance was as talented a visual artist as he was an actorher husband loved his paintingsbut she was still stunned by how quickly and how remarkably he was drawing the animals they saw. The eyes of his elephant had broken her heart. Earlier that autumn, when they were still in L.A., David had said it was only a matter of time before he could risk giving the man a show. (“He’s a movie star,” she told David when she heard the hesitation in his voice. “He’s a Black movie star,” David had reminded her, and while he was only acknowledging the backlash he might face from some quarters, she had still felt the need to remind him it was 1964, not 1864. His gallery’s fiscal foundation couldn’t possibly be so weak that it couldn’t withstand blowback from racist critics and so-called connoisseurs.)
The group, all nine of them and their guides, were about to climb into the Land Rovers and start the drive to the next camp, a journey through the savanna that would take three hours if they didn’t stop, but would, in fact, take seven or eight because they expected to pause often for the Serengeti’s great menagerie of animals. You just never knew what you would see and where you might detour. Yesterday, they had been particularly lucky. They had witnessed the great wildebeest crossing at the Mara River: thousands of wildebeest and zebras storming down the sandy banks into the water and attempting to reach the grass on the other side.
There were five giraffes this morning, three with their legs splayed awkwardly as they stretched their long necks down to the water to drink. She felt a small pang of guilt that she was taking for granted her witness to their presence, animals over fifteen feet talltheir legs alone were taller than she waswith their cream-colored coats and those iconic tawny spots. She wondered at the way her mind was wandering instead to the differences between coincidence and synchronicity. Her brother, Billy, a psychologist, had been expounding on the two words over breakfast in the meal tent.
A coincidence, he had said, was the fact that there were nine Americans on this photo safari, and last month two had been caught in the same end-of-the-world traffic jam that brought freeway traffic to a standstill before the Beatles’ appearance at the Hollywood Bowl: Katie’s husband and Katie’s agent. Though David Hill was nearly thirty years younger than Peter Merrick, the idea that they had turned off their engines and stood smoking Lucky Strikes on the highway beside their cars at almost exactly the same moment near almost exactly the same exit had still been fascinating enough that it had broken the ice their first night in the Serengeti, and led David and Peter to bond in ways that transcended the generation and a half that separated them. (It also gave them something less awkward to discuss than the reality that Katie Barstow, their more obvious commonality, made dramatically more money than either of them, or that they were two big, strapping men who depended upon the earning power of a one-hundred-pound woman with a childhood more freakish than fairy tale who was barely five feet tall.)
Synchronicity was something more profound, a connection that suggested a higher power was at work. In this caseon this safariit was the idea that on their second afternoon in the savanna, one of their guides overheard two of the guests discussing Katie’s latest film and the MGM lion that was the first thing a person saw in the theater, and on a hunch drove the Land Rover to the far side of a tremendous outcropping of boulders, one of the kopjes not far from their camp, and there they were: a female lion and four of her cubs. Regal and proud, the cubs content, all of them lounging in the grass beneath the trees that grew beside the rocks. Even when the second vehicle had roared up behind the first so that everyone could see the animals and snap their photos, the mother lion had done little more than yawn. The cubs looked on a bit more intently, slightly more curious, but since their mother wasn’t alarmed, they merely rolled over, stretched their small arms with deceptively large paws, and found more comfortable positions in the grass. The two Land Rovers were barely a dozen yards from the lioness.
She turned now toward David.
“I think we need to bring a few home,” her husband said, motioning at the giraffes at the watering hole. “And a couple of zebras. We’d never need a lawn service.”
“The zebras would certainly help. But giraffes don’t eat grass,” she reminded him. They’d just bought a ranch. Or, to be precise, she had just bought a ranch. Thirty acres. It was near Santa Clarita, north of the valley. She’d considered buying something in Malibu, but she’d grown up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a theater kid born to theater parents, and now that she wasand the words simultaneously made her bask and cringea movie star, she wanted to steer clear of the mod world that these days marked the sands: the beach houses with their massive windows, circular fireplaces, and Peter Max paintings against the crisp, white walls. She imagined someday she might have a horse. Or horses. One would be lonely. She’d ridden horses in two different movies and enjoyed the experience. She’d felt horrible when she’d watched her stunt double put the animal through some terrifying gallops and then send it to its knees after the creature was, supposedly, shot.
“Point noted,” David agreed.
Beside them, her brother, Billy, was photographing the giraffes with a camera that had a lens so stout it looked to Katie like a club, and his wife, Margie, was staring at the giraffes through binoculars so delicate they reminded Katie of opera glasses. Billy was thirty-five, David’s age and five years her senior, and Margie was thirty-three. Margie had found out she was pregnant in August, and her doctor had thought morning sickness alone was a reason why she shouldn’t go on the safari, but she was game. Said she wouldn’t miss it. This was both her brother’s and Margie’s second marriage. Billy had a four-year-old son at home from his first, but Margie had left no children in her wake when her previous marriage had imploded. Katie knew that she was supposed to want children, and speculated sometimes what it meant that she didn’t. Perhaps she was too ambitious. Or immature. Or selfish. Perhaps it was her hatred of her own parents, who had made her career possible, and yet had also been mercenary and mean and fake. And, yes, cruel. They had not been cruel to each other, which in hindsight was rather surprising, but they had been cruel to Billy and her. (Billy, however, had borne the brunt of the abuse. Most of the real horrors had been inflicted upon him, and it was their mother who was behind the lion’s share of that carnage. How Billy had wound up who he was, rather than whoever was strangling all those women in Boston, was a mystery to her. But, thank God, he had wound up a pretty gentle therapist instead of a pretty violent monster.)
Katie’s team at the studio, her publicist, and her agent all expected that someday soon she and David would have a baby. And most of them had mixed emotions about that. On the one hand, at thirty she was already outgrowing “starlet”: how many more times could she play the ingenue? Besides, now that she was married, it would be unnatural not to have a baby. What would her fans think? On the other hand, most of her entourage disliked the idea of her taking time off, given the box office bullion of everything she touched. Even Tender Madness, her movie with Terrance, had done well, despite the inference in one of the scenes at the mental hospital that the pair had kissed after the cut. (They had, though the moment had wound up on the cutting room floor.)
Reggie Stout was the lone exception: he honestly seemed to want only what she wanted. He was far more to her than a publicist and she put considerably more stock in his counsel than she did in even her agent’sand she trusted Peter Merrick a very great deal. Reggie seemed as invested in her future and her happiness as a real father might be, though this was supposition since some days she hoped desperately that Roman Stepanov was not her real father. Even now, she and her brother, Billy, joked that both of them were babies who had been swapped out at birth, and they weren’t really related to the two grown-ups who had pretended to be their parents. She had chosen Billy to walk her down the aisle the week before last, since her own father had died last year within days of Jack Kennedy, though in far less dramatic circumstances. He’d had a heart attack in a cab on the way home from the theater. The cabbie, at her mother’s direction, had turned around and raced to St. Luke’s, but her father was dead by the time he was wheeled into the emergency room.
The New York papers would have devoted more space than they did to the Broadway icon’s death, but the president took precedent. Katie was grateful, because the last thing she would have wanted that horrible week was to do press with her mother and have to feign grief. She was a good actressbut not that good. Billy was convinced she had chosen movies over the stage, which was the family business, because it meant that she was usually at least three time zones away from their mother, a woman he once called “a singular rarity: a cold-blooded mammal.” Both siblings detested her. They had disliked their father, with reason, but they had loathed their motherthough, arguably, Billy had greater cause than Katie.
“This is when the giraffe is most vulnerable,” Emmanuel, their African guide, was saying, his accent sounding both British and Maasai to Katie. “How much does a giraffe’s neck weigh?” he asked good-naturedly. He was easily seventy, and he was like a schoolteacher with these Americans. He didn’t merely want them to see the Serengeti: he wanted them to understand it. It was a world that he loved and a world he loved sharing.
“Easily six hundred pounds,” Katie answered. She was the only one of the nine guests who’d never been to college, and she understood it was a little pathetic the way she always had to be first with the correct answer. But she did. She needed Emmanuel’s approval.
Carmen was like that, too, though she had been to college. In her case, Katie supposed, it was because Carmen always played supporting roles: she was usually the leading lady’s best friend or sister, the gal with a couple of memorable wisecracks but never the sort of scene that allowed her to show off real acting chops. Being the smartest woman in the room was her way of compensating.
“Good, good,” Emmanuel was reassuring her. “It takes time to look up and look around. That’s why they don’t all drink at once.”
“And their legs,” Katie said. “They’re in no position to run.”
“No,” Emmanuel agreed. “Excellent.”
David put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her into him. He whispered into her ear, “Thank you.”
She turned from the giraffes to her husband. They’d now been married thirteen days. They’d honeymooned alonein style and civilizationin Paris, before meeting the other seven guests she was bringing on safari at the airport outside Paris and flying to Nairobi. Now they were still traveling in style and in a most civilized fashionthe kerosene-powered ice maker the excursion company provided awed her, because, of course, you had to have a proper gin and tonic at the end of a long day on safarithough the civilization was provided by an entourage of seventeen Kenyans and Tanzanians (including two armed rangers), sixteen of whom were Black. The exception was Charlie Patton, no relation, he pointedly told everyone as soon as he was introduced, to the American general. Patton had once been one of the great white hunters, born to colonials at the very end of the nineteenth centuryhe still had the sort of handlebar moustache she associated with cavalry officers from another erabut he had figured out the real money now was with the likes of movie stars such as Katie Barstow. People who wanted to photograph elephants, not shoot them. People who might want a zebra rug or a zebra purse but didn’t want to see the damn thing actually killed.
“Thank you for what?” she asked David, turning from the guide to her husband. She spoke softly in response to his whisper. The camera loved it when she spoke quietly, and directors had often told her that her voice, when she murmured, was gold.
“For this,” he said. “For bringing me here. For bringing us here.”
She took his fingers that were on her shoulder and brought them to her lips. She kissed them. Though David was her first husband, three years ago she had been briefly engaged. That fellowthat actorhad been threatened by her bank account. Not by her, but by her box office grosses. She had broken it off when he disappeared, drunk, the night of the Wild Girl premiere. He ended up going to Italy to lick his wounds and be the bad guy in bad films: Gunfight in Bloody Sands and The Smoking Winchester. Her brother the shrink had warned her that it would be difficult to find a man she might actually love who would ever be completely comfortable with her success, unless he were at least as successful. But men like that? They were rare. Grace Kelly had had to marry an honest-to-God prince. Elizabeth Taylor had just married her fifth husband, Richard Burton, an actor whose star was as bright as hers, even if the movies weren’t the blockbusters that Liz’s were.