By KRISTEN A. LEE
In her first novel, playwright and screenwriter Theresa Rebeck skewers paparazzi culture and our national obsession with the hookups and breakdowns of the young and the beautiful.
In Three Girls and Their Brother (Shaye Areheart Books, 337 pages, $23.95), three gorgeous redheads are thrown into the celebrity machine when a famous photographer takes their portrait for The New Yorker magazine. The media attention sparked by the photograph becomes a firestorm after a public run-in between rebellious, 14-year-old Amelia and a lecherous movie star.
Suddenly, the Heller sisters are New York City’s ‘‘It girls’’ of the moment, their every move stalked and scrutinized by legions of paparazzi and press.
Ambitious 18-year-old Daria and wild 17-year-old Polly welcome the attention, but Amelia wants to go back to the real world of high school. But she soon discovers that casting off her celebrity status won’t be as easy as it seems.
It doesn’t help that the girls’ mother, a former beauty queen, is willing to sacrifice her daughters to feed the demands of agents, publicists, stylists and reporters.
‘‘Honestly, it was like being in some crazy prison somewhere,’’ Amelia says after a nasty encounter with a manipulative agent. ‘‘Psycho prison for teenage models, that’s what it was like.’’
Rebeck breaks the story into four sections, one narrated by each Heller sibling. Given her background as a playwright, it is not surprising that she is able to create convincing, distinctive voices for the teenagers.
Heightening the authenticity, Rebeck peppers the novel with real-life people and places. The girls appear on ‘‘Live With Regis and Kelly,’’ mingle with movie stars at the W Hotel and model lingerie for GQ magazine. The true-to-life references add to the illlusion that we are getting a behind-the-scenes peek at the lives of New York celebrities.
When Amelia is cast in an off-Broadway play, Rebeck takes the opportunity to also gently mock the pretensions and insecurities of the New York theater scene. But Rebeck — the playwright behind ‘‘Spike Heels,’’ ‘‘Bad Dates’’ and her 2007 Broadway debut, ‘‘Mauritius’’ — treats stage actors with more affection than models and movie stars.
The book could have been little more than a frothy beach read, but Rebeck undercuts the fun with darker points about celebrity culture — particularly the damage caused by the media’s sexualization of young girls.
The youngest Heller siblings are at greatest risk from the sisters’ newfound fame. As Amelia’s celebrity begins to eclipse that of her sisters, the adolescent becomes the target of a powerful star’s sleazy designs. The most sympathetic of the Heller siblings — the brother of the title, Philip — is more or less discarded by his family as his sisters’ lives becomes all-consuming.
The novel’s climactic last scene may be over-the-top, but a touch of surrealism is perhaps appropriate in a book about the often bizarre celebrity circus. As we are reminded by watching Britney, Paris and our other real-life ‘‘It Girls,’’ truth can be even stranger than fiction.