Book Review: “The Starlite Drive-In” by Marjorie Reynolds

Instead of being another adult reading a YA book, I happened to stumble across one not explicitly aimed at any age group, despite having a young narrator. Marjorie Reynolds’ The Starlite Drive-In captures the feelings of a transformative 1950s summer, one wrapped in family secrecy and yearning.

The Starlite Drive-In by Marjorie Reynolds (cover)Callie Anne Benton grew up at The Starlite Drive-In, where her father ran the projectors and managed just about everything else on the property. Her agoraphobic mother, Teal, has not left their nearby house in years, and her life is dedicated to pleasing Callie’s father. Callie is content to run around the surrounding woods, chat with the teenage concession workers, and memorize all the movies showing, but everything changes when a beautiful drifter named Charlie Memphis turns up looking for work.

Begrudgingly, her father hires him for general maintenance duties and gives him a room above the concession stand. Immediately, Charlie and Teal strike up a close friendship, and Callie, with her burgeoning crush, isn’t quite sure how she feels about it. Her father certainly doesn’t like it, but in need of the help, he does not immediately chase the man away.

Because Callie is now becoming a teenager, the book does have “coming-of-age” elements with first loves, first kisses, and even the first purchase of a bra (her Aunt Bliss takes her to buy one, since her mother cannot leave the house). Luckily, Reynolds’ writing does not fall into any overly sentimental traps, and though the story takes place 56 years ago, Callie’s thoughts feel just as authentic as I remember feeling at twelve and thirteen years old. Even though the environment and technology are of course considerably different, I think most everyone remembers what it feels like to realize that one’s parents are flawed humans like anyone else, and also that the complexities of love will take a lifetime to understand. To make an obvious parallel: Life rarely resembles the movies.

Maybe it’s just me, but I kept picturing Charlie Memphis as a dark-haired Timothy Olyphant.

Memphis was sitting next to me and across from my mother, and I suppose I was staring at him. The lower half of his face was covered with a black stubble. He may have looked as if he’d just tumbled out of bed, but he was the most handsome man I’d ever seen, except for James Dean, of course. His eyes flashed sometimes brown, sometimes dark gray, depending on how the light hit them, and when he turned them on me, I nearly tumbled off my chair. At that moment, I fell in love with Charlie Memphis.

The further mentions of cowboy boots and his manner of speaking remind me of the show Justified, even though I’ve never seen it. I can see how a man with “straight black hair, deeply tanned skin and high cheekbones” mixed with the description above could cause a gal’s (or guy’s) head to spin, young or not.

The tension between Charlie Memphis and Callie’s father increases throughout the story, and when minor thefts begin occurring at the drive-in, Callie starts to wonder about Charlie Memphis’ past and if someone she cares so much about really had it in him to be a criminal. There’s also a side plot involving her brief relationship with a slightly older concession stand worker, and also one involving an unstable WWII veteran that hangs around the drive-in. Both are interesting, but all take on less importance to what will happen between Callie’s parents and this new man.

I read The Starlite Drive-In while on vacation, and it really is suited to that sort of reading environment – light, but not too light; compelling enough to want to dive back in each night, but not so much that you will want to read it at the expense of other vacation activities. The writing style and the content are smart enough for an adult reading level, but I think that someone as young as the narrator would also enjoy this book. I imagine that readers who grew up in rural areas or are familiar with drive-in movies will get an extra nostalgic thrill.

Speaking of drive-in theaters, have any of you ever seen a movie that way? I haven’t, though I know there are a few remaining in rural areas of Montana. Maybe someday, we’ll try one out.


(Full Disclosure: Harper Paperbacks sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.)

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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