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Book Review : With the Filthy Rich on a Roaring Twenties Lark

June 13, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

The Last Blossom on the Plum Tree by Brooke Astor (Random House: $16.95)

This novel seems designed for the amusement of a lady of leisure in a marabou-trimmed negligee, lying on a satin chaise with a box of bonbons within reach. Deliberately dated, consciously frivolous, "The Last Blossom on the Plum Tree" offers the sort of diversion provided by drawing-room comedies of the 1930s. For reasons no one has ever entirely explained, the miseries of the Depression years were apparently mitigated by the spectacle of the idle rich having one last glorious fling.

Brooke Astor, with firsthand knowledge of that period and total recall of the prevailing manners and mores, has set her story in New York and Portofino, Italy, in 1928, just before the stock market crash divided America into a nation of Haves and Have-nots. All her characters are Haves, though some are more generously endowed than others. To prevent anyone from taking this meringue too seriously, the arch chapter headings indicate the book is intended as a parody--"Emily Is Enchanted With the Castello, Meets Sybil and Murray and Has a Surprise"; "Reggie's Yacht Arrives and There Is Tension in the Air." Despite these constant assurances of satiric intent, the author's style seldom lives up to these promises, adhering faithfully, instead, to every cliche of the genre. The plot is convoluted, crowded with characters illustrating various degrees of worldliness, from total naivete to utter jadedness, their motivations financial, romantic, or both at once.

The exercise in nostalgia begins with the dour but wealthy widow Irma Shrewsbury awaiting the arrival of her half-sister-in-law Emily Codway, a resident of London and frequent visitor to Biarritz and Monte Carlo until the death of her English husband three years before. Why should sophisticated Emily suddenly be overcome with a desire to visit her half-brother James Shrewsbury's grave? Irma asks herself, suspecting an ulterior motive. The two widows--Irma, staid and frumpy; Emily, glamorous and sophisticated--set off in Shrewsbury's limousine for Irma's country house, a convenient place to meet the other characters: Irma's would-be writer son, Joe, and Irma's lawyers, the younger of whom will figure largely, if insignificantly, in the story.

The Very Busy Rich

Others are introduced at a New York dinner party given for that express purpose by Reggie Beekman, an Anglophile American playboy given to salmon fishing and grouse shooting in Scotland, racing at Ascot, polo at Smith's Lawn--a strenuous year-round schedule, leaving no time for gainful employment. At the Beekman mansion, we also meet Molly, an English divorcee in love with Reggie but longing for an acting career; Franz Kramer, a producer who has promised her a part; Olga, Franz's sexy and mysterious Russian companion; and the suave Italian prince who met Emily on the transatlantic crossing to America. After dinner, everyone goes to the Cotton Club in Harlem where the romantic arrangements undergo a temporary realignment.

Immediately thereafter, the scene shifts to Paris, where Irma Shrewsbury is doubly disappointed, first by being judged an unsuitable candidate for a face lift, later by being thwarted in her plan to "adopt" a pleasant young man in her law firm. From there the whole not-so-merry crew moves on to Portofino, where we collect more characters: the boorish bohemian writer, Murray Kent, and the English widow, Sybil Carter, who are having an enjoyable, if ill-advised, affair.

To supplement her income, Sybil acts as a castle-leasing agent, a specialized branch of real estate with many fringe benefits, particularly for this novel. After Emily Codway leases a castle in Portofino from Sybil, all of Emily's new friends drop by in their yachts or by train until the story eventually arrives at a denouement with everyone in the right pair of arms at last, and not a moment too soon. Joe Shrewsbury, who has wisely given up writing for business, has already announced that he "heard talk before leaving New York that in 1929--next year--the market's heading for trouble."

Related by marriage to John Jacob Astor, one of the founders of the New York Public Library, Brooke Astor is now the primary benefactor of that magnificent institution. The author has written two autobiographies as well as a previous novel, all published after the death of her husband, Vincent Astor.

In a recent interview for the New York Times magazine, she said that writing has helped her deal with the past. "After Vincent died, I re-created myself. Now I feel I've become a public monument." If such a woman chooses to add another book to the library she has generously restored to its former glory, who are we to quibble? Mrs. Astor is one in a million, and so is her novel.

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