A Sterling Debut Novel

Allegra Huston with David Noh at Marin Hopper's Upper East Side Hayward House. | COURTESY OF DAVID NOH

“Say My Name” is an extraordinary first novel by Allegra Huston, which spins the tale of Eve, a garden designer, trapped in a dead marriage but revivified by a passionate affair with the much younger Micajah, the son of an old flame. A luminous sensitivity, sage emotionalism, and a true descriptive gift are what really set this book apart, indeed, making Huston something of a modern Colette, the highest praise I can offer.

The novel’s US publication was celebrated at an exclusive party in a very special Manhattan locale, Hayward House. It’s the most special of shops, the inspiration of designer Marin Hopper, the daughter of actor Dennis Hopper and writer Brooke Hayward and granddaughter of actress Margaret Sullavan and Hollywood super-agent/ ladies’ man Leland Hayward. Half of the space is devoted to Leland, civilized elegance personified, stocked with precious objects like Marin’s luxe accessory line, a special selection of Diana Vreeland perfume, and a stuffed white peacock, and presided over by a portrait of the legendary Slim Hawks Hayward Keith, another of Leland’s illustrious wives. The other half of the store throws you right into the wilder West of Dennis Hopper: funky rustic handsomeness, all Navajo rugs, Western gear, and the kind of modern art collected by the late actor.

The ebullient, ultra-warm Huston laughed when I asked her if her book was in any way autobiographical.

IN THE NOH: Allegra Huston’s “Say My Name” says a lot about love and life

“I wish! The plot elements are not, but a lot of the emotions are, the despair, the excitement — those are real. That’s the fun part of writing a novel: the interweaving of imagination and reality to the point where I can’t tell which is which. That’s the goal, really — the emotions have to be real and the novelist’s job is to make sense of who we are and what we feel and do.”

Eve’s unraveling marriage to Larry is, however, mirrored by Huston’s life, which involved a lengthy wind-down of her relationship with the partner she called her husband, Cisco Guevara: “That wasn’t planned, however. Larry is a kind of comic relief in a way but I feel justified for this, because he’s lost. I really feel sorry for him because he’s at the same point as her in life where he feels, ‘Is that all there is?’ and is desperately trying to find communion. She got lucky — it lands right in her lap, but not for him.”

I told Huston that, as I was reading her book, I almost suspected that Larry might be gay: “I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing that,” she said, “because I don’t know anyone who turned 50 and suddenly realized they’d been doing it wrong the whole time. However, in my personal life, my stepson is now my stepdaughter. This 15-year-old was a brother and is now a sister. Initially, it’s almost like, ‘Ohmigod, where does that come from? Nobody in our family ever did that?’ But of course it’s been happening forever, like those guys who were confirmed bachelors and are now gay.

“I met this scientist Randi Epstein, a hormone expert, when I copy-edited her book. What was fascinating about it was the number of children who are actually born intersex. In the old days, doctors didn’t want to tell the parents this, so they made the choice for the child. It is far more normal than abnormal, as many people think. The Navajo — and others — recognized that in their culture.”

Although not gay per se, a rapturous and highly salubrious sexuality does permeate “Say My Name,” particularly in a heated, vertiginous rooftop love scene, prompting fellow writer and lifelong Huston friend Joan Juliet Buck to call it a great “erotic novel” at the party.

“I didn’t want to hide sex between the paragraphs, like between the sheets. It’s an area of life that, somehow, is still very taboo. I wanted to see if I could do it, write a sexy book, but also one in which women felt not powerful, but empowered. I don’t see why a sexy novel can’t also be well-written, why there’s this sort of ghetto into which sexy books get thrown. Surely, violence is a much more embarrassing prospect. Sex should exist in novels, like food.”

This taboo was definitely a challenge: “And I wanted to write something that (a) I would want to read and (b) was not from a man’s viewpoint or, God forbid, like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ Those books showing a meeting between a girl and a guy and, immediately, she falls flat on her face for him. They make me angry.”

An impetus in writing the book was Huston’s secret, long-held desire to have a great love song written for her.

“That was the starting point for my plot, but I didn’t want him to be some old rock’n’roll dinosaur, which introduced the younger man/ older woman theme. Older women are so often regarded as invisible. We’re used to having the door shut in our face, like when you go to Home Depot and just try to find someone to tell you where the drill bits are. I also wanted my love story to have an affirmative, happy ending, but not one where she gets the guy. Why are we still defining women’s happiness and success in terms of having a guy?”

All the fabulous showbiz lineage encompassed in Hopper’s Hayward House is echoed in Huston’s life. Ostensibly the daughter of eminent film director John Huston and ballerina Ricki Soma, who tragically died in a car accident when Allegra was five, the writer discovered when she was 12 that Huston was not her true father. Her stepmother, Cici [aka “The Crocodile,” according to John, who later divorced her] informed her that her real parent was historian and British TV host John Julius Norwich — the son of legendary British beauty Diana Cooper — who had had an affair with Soma.

“I met Diana a couple of times when I was a teenager. Her garden wall adjoined that of my mother in London — she was still beautiful at 94, still stylish with her big hats. I didn’t meet John Huston until I was five [he and Soma had been divorced]. Although I was blonde and looked nothing like my sister Anjelica and brother Tony, he always claimed me as his even though he knew, of course. He was the center of the universe, everything revolved around him, and when I learned the truth — the last thing I needed to know, really — I thought, ‘Ohmigod, if I don’t belong here, where do I belong?’ But then it turned out it really didn’t make any difference at all. It was a big relief to gain a father without losing one because I became very close to Norwich. He’s very much alive, 88, every marble in place, and fabulously fit.”

Huston went to Oxford, where she studied English.

“I had it fixed in my head that I wanted to go to Oxford. English was the only thing for me, although I would have loved anthropology or archaeology, which were not offered. It was magical to me, such a beautiful place, and I made good friends there that I have kept.”

Huston went into publishing as a copywriter and now calls Taos, New Mexico, home.

“I keep busy, writing, copywriting, and being a soccer mom. It’s a low-key, unglamorous life, but I like it. I can see 100 miles outside my kitchen window, friends come to visit, and, although it’s remote, I never feel cut off.

“I’m still close with all my families. Anjelica is about to make a movie, in which she plays a preacher, but they kept putting the starting date off. Tony is all over the place. I never know what he’s doing. My nephew Jack is super busy, acting all the time, and I’m producing a film with him, based on ‘Operation Heartbreak,’ the one novel my grandfather, Duff Cooper [Diana’s husband who was the British ambassador to France], wrote. I read it two summers ago and it’s amazing!”

SAY MY NAME | By Allegra Huston | MIRA Books | $26.99 | 304 pages