There is a "note to the reader" prefacing this book which proclaims it it not based on any one person ,a disclaimer that will ring hollow in the ears of British readers above a certain age who will clearly see the similarities between its main protagonist Maria Tambini ,and the late Lena Zavaroni ,whose tragic career so closely prefigures that of Maria -a child star who died of anorexia nervoso at a tragically early age .
It opens in the Jubilee year of 1977 on the Isle of Bute in Scotland .Maria ,a small child of 13 possesses a powerful singing voice ,and she is discovered by a scout for the TV programme Opportunity Knocks (an actual show ,presented by Hughie Green ,who also appears in the novel ,under his own name ).She is taken to London ,taken on by am ambitious agent ,Marion ,and swiftly enrolled at the prestigious Italia Conti stage school(also a real institution ).She wins Opporunity Knocks numerous times and is eventually retired from the show on the ground she is unbeatable .A hit single follows ,along with a round of TV appearances and sea side variety shows ,as well as sell out shows at the London Palladium ,trips to Vegas and a White House performance .Sadly also featuring are bouts os self starvation ,a heavy lazative ingestion and prolonged bouts of hospitalization .
This is pure Zavaroni -even the interview featured in the book ,whwre she appeared on the Wogan chat show is lifted almost verbatim from the actual programme .It is impossible at least for British readers to escape the " roman a clef "elements of the novel .This is not to downplay its merits as imaginative fiction -merely to point out its reliance on actual people .There are plenty of real people namechecked in the book ,from the unctuous Hughie Green whose oleaginous personality is captured faithfully ,to doyens of British comedy such as Les Dawson .Diana ,Princess of Wales -herself a victim of eating disorders -appears as does Nancy Reagan ,saying it is impossible to be too thin .
Aside from the passages devoted to Maria's career the emotional epicentre of the book lies back on Bute with the family from whom Maria sprang and the milieu of the island and the Italian community in particular is evocatively captured .
The narrative proceeds through a variety of voices particularly various family members ,interviews and letters from Maria's childhood friend Kalpana and her stalker Kevin .Especially vivid are the voices of her neurotic mother ,Rosa ,and her uncle Alfredo ,a womanising barber ,not to mention her grandmother Lucia ,although the cumulative impact of so many narrative voices is a detriment and even confusing at times .
The book works as an account of one person's rise to fame and the world in which it takes place ,a world which is changing and becoming more ruthless. If the narrative now and again bogs down -which it does -there are ample compensations namely in the strongly drawn characters like the Italian clan and Maria's protector ,Michael ,and the pathetic celebrity stalker Kevin .
Its a rich and rewarding book full of incidental detail and some fine minor figures ,like Kalpanna's father ,Dr Jaggadanam .
Enjoy it for its insight into the corrosive impact of too early fame and as a study in deracination -the plight of the person who takes flight from a small place to a larger stage only to discover they are at home in neither one .
The ending is upbeat and cautiously optimistic -would that its inspiration were around to read it .