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Style and Substance by Judith Martin (Atheneum: $15.95; 274 pp.)

November 16, 1986|Susan Stamberg | Stamberg is between anchors. For 14 years, she hosted National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." In January, she host NPR's new "Weekend Edition" on Sunday mornings.

They should have asked John Updike to write this review. Not just because he is arguably our finest book reviewer, but also because he is a gentleman critic, polite and considerate. Such qualities are always pleasant but become downright crucial when reviewing the second novel of a writer whose pen name, in other circumstances (columns, TV spots, best sellers), is Miss Manners. One wouldn't want to come right out and say about such an author, "Her plot is clunky," or "Her male characters are clods." Rather, one would find more tactful, careful, even circuitous ways of proffering such brickbats. To wit:

Judith Martin sets her story in two locales she knows quite well--the media world of her hometown, Washington, D.C., and the sun-spattered Greek island of Santorini, where she clearly has spent some time. She is similarly authoritative on one of her themes--celebrity, its seductiveness, and its limitations.

Her celebrity heroine, Alice Bard, moves briskly between the two locations. Alice, 46, a onetime Washington network television correspondent and weekend anchor, has lost her job because her looks have "inexcusably matured."

In Alice, Judith Martin has created a funny and original character. Alice is spunky, dauntless and energetic. She admits she's less a journalist than a personality and knows that being a personality is "not an American occupation" but " the American occupation."

Famous but suddenly unoccupied, Alice is also lonely, a middle-aged spinster. So she goes to Greece, where she'd lived as a child, to track down her best friend, Ione Aristedes Livanos. Ione is now an archeologist, a widow and mother of a splendid 11-year-old boy. Alice bears the Greeks back to Washington and installs them as her family.

That's when the novel begins to unravel. The household becomes involved in a wearying number of subplots that include a major exhibition of frescoes from Santorini, the (im)possibility that one of the frescoes is a life portrait of Helen of Troy, the possibility that a priceless art object has been smuggled out of Greece, the creation of a television special about the exhibit, the double-crossing of several female friendships, encounters between Greek and American youths, and forays into the international business of cosmetics. Getting through the plot of "Style and Substance" is like swimming the Aegean in a himation. Buoyant the plot's not.

The book takes on additional drag when Martin stops plotting and works in some travelogue and/or art history. Ione, the archeologist, confronts a statue of the goddess Athene this way:

" 'Unbelievable. That's what she must have looked like. The Nike is--perfect!' With a gaga expression she drew her eyes up and down. 'The Sphinx, the Pegasoi,' she moaned, examining the helmet. 'The Centauromachy,' she said, peering at the sandals, and then the base . . . . 'The Amazonomachy has it--it must be--Phidias himself--and Pericles!' "

If that weren't enough, the men in "Style and Substance" read as woodenly as Ione sometimes speaks. There's lawyer Bill Spotswood, a sturdy but dull romantic presence for Alice.

"Bill the background figure, presentable but unstimulating . . . the bridegroom figure on the wedding cake."

If museum directors really were as boringly bureaucratic as Martin's Godwin Rydder (it is a perfect museum name , though), they'd never be able to wheedle money for exhibitions. The exception is art expert Max von Furst--a splendid villain; taut, ugly, sexy as heck (it's impolite to swear in print).

But it's Alice and Ione who keep "Style and Substance" going. Recognized wherever she goes, Alice Bard defends the fact that she's more of a Who than a What: "I truly believe what I do serves humanity. . . . When you consider how epidemic boredom is in our time, you have to concede that entertaining is a healing art." Alice is cheerful in the face of just about anything. She'd be a meddlesome, marvelous neighbor. She's great with kids, has a real sense of family, and is the kind of friend who fights you to exhaustion because she loves you so much.

The recipient of this attention, Ione, is also a fine creation, despite her lapses into archeological Greek. Rediscovering America, Ione stays Old World in the best sense, scratching against Alice's hype, her stylish veneer, with solid values and principles.

" 'The schools, the museums, the government, the libraries--the students. Everybody's in show business. The schools look for neat ways to package scholarship, so they can sell it . . . There is getting to be only one way of doing things, and it's your way, Alice. Fast, understandable, anecdotal. Racy, unambiguous, simple . . . but if everybody gets to be a supercommunicator, who's going to supply something worth communicating?' "

In the end, despite the book's clunks and clods, the women, (anchor Alice, archeologist Ione, author Martin) almost carry it off. But not quite. It's as if the three needed to spend more time together. As a writer, Martin has all the style and substance needed to produce a first-rate novel. That she hasn't done it here may mean she's spent too little time smoothing out plot bumps, cutting out clutter--and too much time minding her Manners.

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