Andrew O'Hagan's Personality opens on Scotland's Isle of Bute with three generations of the Tambini family struggling for success in their adopted home. The blanket of charm that envelops the Tambini's gradually discloses many secrets: forgotten children, torrid affairs, closeted homosexuality, and suppressed ethnic tension. Thirteen-year-old singer Maria Tambini seems to be everybody's antidote to past failures. After she leaves Bute for and audition with the television show Opportunity Knocks in London, she rapidly achieves both fame and fortune buoyed by a voice "like Barbara Streisand['s]" and charisma beyond her years. Friends and family mourn her loss to stardom while taking solace that someone has escaped Bute and achieved success as they imagine it must be on television.
But Maria's abrupt transformation into a personality leads to obsession with body image, clothes, hairstyles, and make-up; she sees herself as only an object for other people's entertainment: "Her body was apart from her. The person with thoughts was different from the person with arms and legs, a stomach and a face." For Maria, a life of surfaces, a life of pleasing, means self-annihilation. As her self fades into the image that others project on her, her body literally withers away.
O'Hagan experiments with virtually every narrative form in Personality (even including an epistolary chapter). Not all of these attempts work, and the story--driven by its strong characters and not plot--occasionally bogs down in details unnecessary to the development of either. But even in these rare lapses O'Hagan, whose previous work has been short-listed for the Booker Prize, carries his reader through his finesse with Scottish dialect and the wit of his rich supporting characters. --Patrick O'Kelley
O'Hagan chronicles the rise and fall of a troubled pop singer in his poignant second novel "inspired to some extent by the lives of several dead performers." Young Maria Tambini has a powerful set of pipes: on Scotland's Isle of Bute, where her grandparents immigrated to escape Mussolini, the shy, winsome girl wows residents and wins numerous local talent contests. At 13, she triumphs on TV and moves to London. But as her career hits the fast track, Tambini begins to lose touch with her family and control of her life. Successful albums and appearances with the likes of Dean Martin, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett abound ("You are such a talented little person I want to kill you," Cavett says), but Tambini develops a laxative habit and begins both starving herself and vomiting. Soon, hospital visits become a regular part of her routine. O'Hagan introduces a romantic subplot when Maria meets a kind former classmate, Michael, who helps nurse her through her struggles, and the climax features a well-crafted confrontation with a deranged fan who continues to stalk Maria even after her career has peaked. Many of the rags-to-riches music scenes are familiar, but O'Hagan portrays Maria's food problems with grace and compassion (diet soda feels "like a passing shower of rain inside, and harmless, under control, the taste of zero"). The additional story line about the struggles of Maria's mother, Rosa, is more hit-or-miss. This novel is a solid addition to O'Hagan's body of work, but the absence of a truly compelling plot makes it a bit of a disappointment after the critical acclaim for Our Fathers, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
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