Jane Heller’s winning novel is one no grown-up daughter should miss. Cleveland-born Stacey Reiser moved to Hollywood to make it as an actress – and to escape her interfering mother. Then Helen decides to move to Hollywood, where she does a commercial and becomes the toast of the town. How do you deal with a mom who’s leading the life you crave?
May 11, 2003
by Diane White
Jane Heller’s funny, fast-moving Lucky Stars may not be the perfect Mother’s Day read. Or it may be, depending on your circumstances amd your sense of humor. Narrator Stacey Reiser is a struggling 34-year-old actress in Los Angeles whose loving mother, Helen, is wont to call her multiple times daily to ask why she’s not married yet. This is bad enough long-distance, but then her mother decides to move from Cleveland to LA, to an apartment around the corner from her beloved daughter. Helen’s discovery of a bone in a can of tuna fish triggers an improbable series of events – this is a farce, after all – that result in mother becoming the star that daughter longs to be. Helen is booked on Leno and Oprah and Regis. Woody Allen wants her for a movie. Celebrities vie to greet her in restaurants. Stacey muses bitterly, “Success in Hollywood was all about being the new face in town (even if the face was sixty-six) and not about having talent.”
Lucky Stars is amusing about the mother-daughter relationship as well as the madhouse that is Hollywood.
by Dan Jewel
Just as 34-year-old actress Stacey Reiser – the heroine of Heller’s 10th novel – is on the verge of success, she finds herself starring in a real life comedy of errors. Jack Rawlins, a movie critic with the power to “literally torpedo a budding career,” declares her performance in the latest comedy to have “the subtlety of a sledgehammer.” Worse, her nagging mother, Helen, joins her in L.A. – and finds a bone in a can of tuna fish. That incident leads, through an unpredictable chain of events, to Helen landing a gig as a pitchwoman for Fin’s tuna. Faster than you can say Freaky Friday, Mom is a phenom and her daughter a pesky worrywart….The plot of Lucky Stars is wildly inventive – from that tuna business to Stacey’s extravagant attempts to investigate her mother’s fishy new boyfriend. Heller’s prose is quite funny and always engaging. In the end, Stars shines.
BOTTOM LINE: Lucky charms.
Heller writes the kind of uncomplicated and popular novels that make it onto lists like “People’s Beach Book of the Week.” Here, in the former book publicist’s tenth novel, we meet Stacey Reiser, a struggling Hollywood actress. Nearly 35 years old, Stacey is still plugging away waiting for her big break, in the meantime making do with commercials and part-time retail jobs. Her love life is sorely lacking, and on top of all that, her nosey, loud-mouthed, interfering mother, Helen, has just moved to Hollywood to be closer to her. Things only grow worse when Helen finds a bone in a can of tuna and writes a nasty letter to the tuna fish company. The company invites her to their cannery for a visit, and the abrasive and plainspoken Helen is soon offered a starring role in the company’s new ad campaign. Meanwhile, Stacey’s career continues to tank. What’s more, Helen now has a boyfriend, while Stacey continues to have man troubles. This is light reading at its finest.
March 3, 2003
This frolic by Heller (Female Intelligence) may be the spiritual descendant of Freaky Friday, but she delivers her story in fresh language with singular energy. Stacey Reiser comes to Hollywood to become an actress. It also doesn’t hurt that L.A. is far both from her native Cleveland and from Helen Reiser, a feisty, 66-year-old know-it-all widow who’s marvelous as a walk-on in your life but impossible as a mother. But Helen ups and moves to L.A., too, the better to nag 34-year-old Stacey about her split ends and unmarried state. Through a cascade of events that begins with a bone in a can of tuna and one of Helen’s legendary complaint letters to the corporate office, Helen ends up where Stacey always wanted to be: the rich and famous star of a commercial and the darling of the talk-show circuit. She even has a dashing suitor, Victor Chellis, with a fully staffed estate in Beverly Hills. Naturally, Helen’s whirlwind ascendancy takes place just as Stacey’s career tanks. Reviewing her performance opposite Jim Carrey in “Pet Peeve,” almighty movie critic Jack Rawlins tells his TV audience that Stacey has the “subtlety of a sledgehammer.” Stacey rapidly becomes the old Helen, nagging Mom about her wardrobe and the dubious Victor. Only Stacey’s acting talent and a nail-biting car chase can restore mother and daughter to their proper roles. It’s spirited, effortless entertainment with a winning premise and plenty of references to Hollywood stars and the latest TV shows.
Midwest Book Review
She loves her mother but budding actress Stacey Reiser really wishes that she would get a life. Stacy is tired of her mother’s frequent phone calls, unsolicited advice and suggestions on how to hold on to a man. Even though there is not a man in her life at present, she is getting roles in movies and televisions shows instead of commercials. When Helen Reiser sells her home in Cleveland and moves close to her daughter in L.A. Stacey goes into shock. Stacey becomes persona non grata in movieland when Jack Rawlins of Good Morning Hollywood trashes her part in a movie. Through a quirky set of circumstances Helen becomes the star in a series of tuna fish commercials, which leads to her to becoming a Hollywood icon. Stacey is happy for her mother even though she has to take a sales job to pay the bills. She becomes very concerned when her mother falls for a man with a shady reputation. Stacey, with the help of Jack (the pair are now an item), try to dig up some evidence against him because her mother won’t have her daughter dissing her boyfriend. LUCKY STARS is a first class dramatic comedy starring two strong-willed women who are experiencing role reversal. Readers will find themselves chuckling out loud at some of the conversations these two women exchange. The romance between the actress and the film critic adds another layer of complexity to the plot, as does Stacey’s antipathy toward her mother’s beau. Jane Heller is a talented writer whose latest work crosses genre lines with this lush witty melodrama.
Jill M. Smith
Actress Stacey Reiser loves her mother, but can only take her in small doses. For years, widow Helen Reiser has made Stacey’s health and happiness her major priorities, thereby driving Stacey nuts. It was bad enough when Stacey lived in Cleveland, but now her busybody Mom packs up and moves west. Stacey knows she is in deep trouble. Stacey has been making slow but steady progress in her acting career. She hopes that her latest role in the new Jim Carrey movie will be her launching pad. It is, but not in the way she’d hoped: The movie tanks and Stacey is savaged by Jack Rawlins, the critic and host of “Good Morning Hollywood.” Wouldn’t you know that a bizarre twist of fate is about to hand Helen the career Stacey always dreamed about. When Helen confronts Fin’s Tuna company about a bone found in a can, the company is so impressed that they hire Helen for a commercial. Suddenly, grouchy, tell-it-like-it-is Helen is the toast of the media world. Everyone, even Oprah, wants to talk with Helen. Now it’s Stacey’s turn to worry that her mother is getting in over her head. Only in Hollywood! Jane Heller is back and dishing out the humor and irony fast and furiously. While at its heart, Lucky Stars is a mother-daughter story, the tale also brims with romance, intrigue and loads of laughter.
I’ve always wanted to write a funny book about a mother and daughter, but it wasn’t until I read a newspaper article about a novelist whose mother became an even more successful novelist that I got the idea for Lucky Stars. I thought, What would happen if your own mother not only entered your career arena but surpassed you in it? Would you be happy for her? Proud of her? Jealous of her? Probably all three. And then I wondered, To add insult to injury, what if your mother fell in love at the very time in your life when you couldn’t even scare up a date? Talk about the competitive juices flowing!
While these ideas were percolating in my head, I moved to Los Angeles and was suddenly surrounded by people in the entertainment business. I thought, Why not set my mother-daughter story in L.A. and make the daughter a struggling actress whose mother becomes the big star?
I researched the book by interviewing several young actresses – women who had come to Tinseltown hoping for their break but had yet to achieve real stardom. They came and sat at my kitchen table and shared their experiences with me. They were generous, they were honest and they were, at times, screamingly funny. Most of all, they’re very talented and deserve to “make it.”
As for my own mother, she’s not the meddlesome type and isn’t the model for the character of Helen in the book by any means. Does she tell me to wear a sweater when it’s cold, even though I’ve long passed the age when I didn’t know how to dress myself? You bet. Which is why I think Lucky Stars will strike a familiar chord with mothers and daughters everywhere. Mothers are mothers and daughters are daughters, and the relationship can be prickly, but, as the heroine says in the book: “Mothers can be difficult, but they’re the ones who love you when nobody else does.”
Read the First Chapter
I loved my mother, really I did, but there were times when she drove me nuts. And I don’t mean nuts, as in: she aggravated me. I mean nuts, as in: she made the tiny vein in my left eyelid twitch. I mean nuts, as in: she gave me hives. I mean nuts, as in: she had the power to cause my period to be irregular.
No, Helen Reiser wasn’t a force of nature, just a nagging mother, an overprotective mother, a pain-in-the-butt mother. She meant well, but she just couldn’t face the fact that her “baby” had grown up.
She called me a million times a day, offered her advice whether it was solicited or not, had no compunction about saying, “Your hair’s too long” and “Don’t forget to take an umbrella” and, on those rare occasions when I was actually dating someone, “He’s not right for you.” She was the opposite of a shrinking violet. She was like a weed that grows and grows and grows until it chokes the entire garden.
She was only five feet two, but she was built like a linebacker – a short but sturdy woman with square shoulders and thick ankles and ramrod straight posture – and she had this nasal, adenoidal voice that was so unmistakably hers that it got under my skin, haunted me in my sleep, brought me to my knees, especially in combination with the narrowing of the eyes and the arching of the brows.
“Come on, Mom. I’m not a child anymore,” I’d pipe up whenever she’d boss me around, “and I don’t appreciate your constant interference.”
“Oh, so you’d rather I didn’t care?” was her typical comeback “You know, Stacey, there are plenty of mothers who don’t care about their children.”
“Yes, but caring is a lot different than criticizing,” I’d point out.
“Who’s criticizing?” she’d say. “You’re being too sensitive.”
Huh? She would literally stop speaking to people who didn’t fall all over her in the supermarket, but I was too sensitive?
“I’m just an honest person,” she’d add. “And you should thank your lucky stars that I am honest, because not everyone is, dear.”
Like that was a news bulletin. I was a thirty-four-year old actress on a quest for fame and fortune in Hollywood, a place where honesty is hardly ever an option. The minute you get here you start lying spontaneously, as if there’s something toxic in the drinking water. You lie about your age (you shave off ten years minimum). You lie about your heritage (you claim to be one-quarter Cherokee, or whatever is the heritage du jour). You lie about needing to supplement your income with a real job (you explain that you’re only waiting tables in a biker bar so you can research a character). And then there’s the lying that comes at you from the other side (you go to an audition and they tell you you’re wonderful and you never, ever hear from them again).
Of course my mother wasn’t thrilled about my choice of a profession, any more than she approved of my boyfriends or the fact that I had yet to get married. When she wasn’t hitting me with: “God forbid you should give me a grandchild,” she’d hit me with: Why can’t you do something practical for a living, like Alice Platkin’s daughter?” Alice Platkin’s daughter was an accountant who, unbeknownst to Mrs. Platkin, was also a psychic with her own 900 number.
But whenever I did land a part, however small, she was right there cheering for me. Cheering for me and then reminding me to drink my milk.
She loved me and I loved her and I understood that one of the reasons she was in my face was because she was lonely. She was a sixty-six-year-old widow living in the same house in Cleveland where she raised me. She didn’t have a job. She didn’t play bridge. She didn’t even belong to a book group. While she did have a few close friends, they were her emotional twins in the sense that they, too, lavished all their attention on their children. Whenever they’d get together, it wasn’t a gathering of pals sharing confidences, but a contest between competitors one-upping each other about their offspring. (One competitor: “My Sarah is marrying a proctologist.” Another competitor: “So? My Emily is a proctologist.”) As her only child, I was her focal point, her keenest interest, the center of her universe. In other words, in this era of naval gazing, it was my naval she was always gazing at.
Maybe you have a mother like mine – the kind who’s there for you but makes you feel like an infant as well as an ingrate. Maybe you’ve experienced the love/hate, the push/pull, the yearning for approval/the yearning for independence. Maybe you, too, are the good daughter who harbors a secret wish that your mother would leave you the hell alone. But even you couldn’t have predicted the bizarre turn my relationship with my mother would take. You see, all I asked was that she get a life. I never dreamed that the life she’d get would be the one I wanted.
But I’m jumping way ahead of myself. Let me go back to the period before the situation with my mother became the stuff of Greek tragedy (okay, French farce). Let me begin with the day my mother decided that calling me on the phone and leaving messages on my answering machine and reaching me on my pager didn’t meet her requirements for mother-daughter closeness, the day that she came up with the brilliant idea of selling the house in Cleveland, moving to L.A., and becoming my neighbor…
I was sitting in the outer office of the casting director, trying to stay calm while I waited for my turn to read. Auditions are a nerve-wracking experience, but it’s important to harness your fear, make it work for you. That’s what they tell you in acting class – to use your emotions. Yeah, well I used my emotions that day, but not in the way they meant.
This was my second callback for a network television movie (aka movie of the week, or MOW) about a death row inmate who had twenty-four hours to prove her innocence before meeting her maker. I was there to read yet again for the part of Angie, the strong, brave, utterly unflappable sister of the death row inmate, who was to be played by Melina Kanakaredes. The part wasn’t huge, but it was a juicy part, a showy part, the kind of part that gets actresses noticed. I was ecstatic that I had made the first cut and would now be reading for the casting director a second time.
Also sitting in the outer office were seven other hopefuls, six of whom could have been my clones. They were my approximate height and weight (five feet six and 115 pounds) and had my identical look (wavy dark brown hair, fair complexion, pretty face although not breathtaking), and they sported my girl-next-door wardrobe (khakis and a buttoned-down shirt). The seventh hopeful was an actress who bore no resemblance to me or the others – a vixen type whom I’d seen at lots of auditions. How could you miss her? She had boobs that were so high and mighty they could have starred in their own MOW. Plus she was notorious for playing preaudition head games with other actresses, her intent being to sabotage our readings and win herself the parts by default. For instance, she’d say, loud enough for all of us to hear her, “Someone told me they’ve already cast this thing, which means there’s no point in hanging around.” Or: “Rumor has it that the director is a prick to work with.” Or sometimes she’d just try to rattle us by doing vocal warm-ups, taking deep breaths and, on each exhale, making exaggerated and obnoxious vowel sounds, like ‘ahhhh’ and ‘eeeee’ and ‘ooooo’.
I forced myself to ignore her and instead pumped myself up, remembering that I had as good a shot at getting the part as she did. Better, because I was on a roll at that point in my career, on the verge of genuine success.
I had come to L.A. six years before, fill of cockeyed optimism, believing that all my drama teachers back in Cleveland had meant it when they’d said I had talent. During the first few years here, I hadn’t gotten anybody’s attention and then-bingo!-I’d landed a TV commercial for Irish Spring. The part called for the character to wash in the shower, and I was the only actress at the audition who mimed sticking the bar of soap in her armpit. Big deal, right? Your armpit is one of the places where the soap goes when you’re washing yourself in the shower, isn’t it? Well, the director thought I made “a really edgy choice” and practically gave me the job on the spot. That commercial led to a commercial for Taco Bell, which led to a stint on Days of Our Lives, which led to guest starring roles on Boston Public and Ally McBeal. Before I knew it, I was shooting a pilot here, a pilot there. Before I knew it, I was no longer waiting tables at the biker bar. Before I knew it, I was moving out of the Burbank fleabag I was sharing with three other women and moving into my own apartment in Studio City. Before I knew it, I had a part in a feature film. It was a comedy called Pet Peeve, in which Jim Carrey played a veterinarian and I played his receptionist. I was only in two scenes with Carrey and I didn’t have a lot of lines, but hey, it was a feature film, for God’s sake! It was going to make a fortune on opening weekend! I was on the brink of being considered hot which is, hands down, the best thing that a person in Hollywood can be considered!
But in the meantime, while I waited for the release of Pet Peeve, I continued to go on auditions, like the one that day for the MOW about the death row inmate. I was sitting there in that outer office, contemplating the motivation of the character, trying to channel the strong, brave, utterly unflappable Angie, when my cell phone rang. I glanced at the number of the caller, hoping it was my agent’s. That’s why you take your cell phone everywhere even to auditions-in case it’s your agent. But, no, it was just my mother checking in.
I’ll let my voice mail talk to her, I thought, stuffing the phone back into my purse. No way she’s going to distract me before I go into this reading.
A few minutes later the phone rang again. As before, the caller’s number was my mother’s.
I’m busy, I growled silently. May I please just get this job and then call you back, Mom?
A few minutes later, the phone rang again. Guess who.
I waited, tried to put myself back in the mind-set of Angie, the sister of the death row inmate, but my mother’s voice kept creeping into my head. Maybe it’s urgent, I allowed myself to think. Maybe she’s sick or in trouble or needs me. Maybe I shouldn’t blow her off this time, because if I do and something is really wrong, I’ll never forgive myself. God, the guilt.
Against my better judgment, I played back the messages.
The first one said, “Stacey, it’s your mother. I have news.”
The second one said, “Hi, Stacey. I’m not sure if the first message got through. There was terrible static on the line. You should switch wireless carriers, dear. Verizon is a lot better than AT&T, in my opinion, so listen to your mother.”
The third one said, “So where is my little Meryl Streep today? And did she remember to take a sweater with her? The Weather Channel said it was chilly there. Not as chilly as Cleveland, naturally, but you won’t have to worry about me freezing to death anymore. That’s what I’m calling about, Stacey. I have a big surprise for you. I’ve sold the house and I’m coming to live in L.A. with you. No, not with you. I would never impose like that. I meant I’ll be living nearby, in my own place but close enough to stop by and see you every day. I’ll be able to make sure you’re eating enough and taking care of yourself and keeping your apartment clean. And I’ll be able to see who your friends are-including your men friends-and you’ll be able to tell me everything that’s on your mind, face to face. It’ll be just the way it should be between a mother and daughter. No more of this long-distance nonsense. Whenever you turn around, there I’ll be. Now, don’t thank me. I’m sure you’re very grateful that I’m uprooting myself for your health and well-being, but that’s the way I want it and I won’t hear a word of protest. So listen to your mother and don’t try to talk me out of this. Understood? Fine. Speak to you later.”
I was stunned, a big, hard knot forming in the pit of my stomach. Stunned! My mother was coming? For good?
It’ll never work, I thought. We’ll kill each other first.
I had a tough enough time when she’d visit me for a week. At the end of her trip, I’d put her on the plane and immediately head for the nearest bar. It would usually take two, maybe even three, margaritas before my pulse returned to normal. So if a week with her made me looney tunes, what would forever do to me? How would I survive?
So much for the part of Angie in the MOW. I began to dwell on the notion, the specter, of my mother taking up residence in L.A. and invading my space. I began to picture her dropping by my house, toting casseroles consisting of food groups I hadn’t eaten in years, rearranging the contents of my kitchen cabinets, stripping my bed in order to make better hospital corners. I began to imagine a typical conversation between us, during which she would criticize some aspect of my life and I would ask her not to and she would say why not and I would explain that it was upsetting and she would tell me I was overreacting and I would argue that she was the one who needed to change and she would act hurt and disappointed and I would end up apologizing.
I heard someone calling my name, way back in the outer reaches of my consciousness, but I was still obsessing about my mother’s news and couldn’t quite focus.
“Stacey Reiser? Hello!”
I snapped back to reality. It was the assistant to the casting director who was calling my name. Apparently, it was my turn to read for the part of the strong, brave, utterly unflappable Angie.
I went into the casting director’s office and took my place opposite her and, after the obligatory pleasantries and a moment to collect myself, I launched into the part of Angie.
“Of course I believe in my sister’s innocence,” I began. “I’ve always believed in her, even during the trial, even with the awful things people have said about her, even after the guilty verdict. It’s all been a mistake and I hope and pray she’ll be granted a stay of execution.” I paused, waited for the casting director to feed me the next line. “You bet I’m standing by her. And yeah, I’m strong. In our family we don’t knuckle under when times get rough. We learned that from our mother.”
On the word “mother” I felt a catch in my throat. Well, a sort of a gulp. A bubble. A glob of phlegm. I coughed, said, “Excuse me.”
“Would you like some water, Stacey?” asked the casting director.
“No, thanks. I’m fine,” I said, the lump growing, taking on a life of its own.
“Why don’t you pick up with ‘we learned that from our mother,'” she instructed me.
“Oh. Sure.” I took a second, tried to ignore the jumble of emotions that were exploding inside of me, not to mention the tears that were pricking at my eyes. “We learned that from our mother.” I proceeded. “Mom taught us to believe in ourselves. She wasn’t, uh, like one of those mothers who tells her daughter what to do or cross-examines her about what she ate and who she went to the movies with and whether it was chilly when she got out of the movie theater and if she brought a jacket that was warm enough and if the neighborhood where she parked the car was safe or should she have stayed home and rented a movie and-”
“None of that stuff about the movies and the weather and the neighborhood is in the script. And we’re not doing any improvising today. That’s not what the callback is about. It’s about reading the script as written.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
“Not only that, Angie is supposed to be unflappable and you’re playing her as if she’s on the verge of a breakdown. Want to try it again? Make an adjustment?”
I tried it again. I made an adjustment. But in the end I blew it. I couldn’t get Helen Reiser out of my mind during that audition, couldn’t get over that she was moving to town — my town.
By the time I left the casting director’s office, I was a basket case.
On my way out, I walked over to the actress with the big attitude and the even bigger rack and said, “Do you have a mother?” She looked at me as if I’d lost it, which, of course, I had. ‘Because if you don’t,” I said, “I’ve got one I could lend you.”
The sad thing is, I wasn’t kidding. At that moment, I wanted to lend Mom to somebody, to drop her off on somebody’s doorstep, to sell her to somebody on eBay-anything to avoid having to deal with her. But she was mine, all mine, and, like it or not, my ability to function as an adult was about to be severely tested.
Jane’s 10th novel, Lucky Stars, is a mother-daughter story that’s set in Hollywood but should have mothers and daughters everywhere laughing out loud and nodding in recognition.The heroine, Stacey Reiser, is a struggling actress in L.A. She’s pushing thirty-five and still waiting for her Big Break, and she’s on the fence about whether she should continue to pursue her dream or give it up and get a real job. Her widowed mother, Helen, who has recently moved to L.A. from Cleveland in order to be closer to her, is one of the great meddlers of all time. She’s in Stacey’s face about everything – her hair, her clothes, her boyfriends, you name it – and she drives Stacey nuts. All Stacey wants is for her mother to get a life. How could she ever have imagined that the life her mother gets is the life she desperately craves!
Through a quirk of fate (or is it dumb luck?), Helen, a chronic complainer, finds a bone in her can of Fin’s Premium Tuna and writes a nasty letter to the tuna fish company. To placate her, the company invites her to their cannery to inspect the premises, and while she’s there, giving everybody a tongue lashing, the executives decide she should star in their new TV ad campaign. They love her no-nonsense attitude, her blunt manner, her “realness.” No sooner does her first ad run then she becomes a huge celebrity (remember Clara Peller, the “Where’s the beef?” lady from the old Wendy’s commercials?). Suddenly, she’s the actress in the family, not Stacey. What’s more, after years of criticizing Stacey’s choices in men, now it’s Helen who’s got a boyfriend – a guy with a very checkered past. The question is: should Stacey meddle in her mother’s business, the way her mother has always meddled in hers? The answer’s yes, because it just might mean saving Helen’s life.
A comic tale that every mother and daughter will relate to, the novel combines elements of romance and suspense for a rousing good read.