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A Star With a Secret in Krantz's Latest Novel

November 05, 1998|Book Review MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES


by Judith Krantz


$25.95, 416 pages


Popularity as great as Judith Krantz's is rarely unexplainable. Her 10th novel, like the previous nine (including "Scruples," "Princess Daisy" and "Dazzle"), is a spun-sugar confection fit to rot the serious reader's teeth, but it's useless to complain. A lot of people are going to love "The Jewels of Tessa Kent" anyway, and the time is better spent acknowledging why.

Tessa Kent is "the most internationally adored of American movie stars." At 38, she is stricken by pancreatic cancer. With death perhaps a year away, she determines to right her life's greatest wrong: her estrangement from her daughter, Maggie, born out of wedlock when Tessa--then a convent schoolgirl named Teresa Horvath--was 14.

Teresa's morbidly pious Catholic parents raised the baby as her sister, while using the beautiful teenager's guilt as a lever to push her into show business. Teresa, desperate to please them, landed the role of Jo in a film adaptation of "Little Women" at 16. The rest was Hollywood history. She married an Australian beer baron, Luke Blake, whose extravagant possessiveness (he liked nothing better than posing her naked and covering her with diamonds, rubies and emeralds) made her feel safe.

Luke, though, treasured the idea of marrying a virgin, despite his own history as a playboy. Tessa didn't want to disillusion him, so after her parents' death in a car crash she felt she couldn't raise Maggie as her daughter. The sister-fiction continued; Maggie was brought up in the family of Luke's stepbrother, Tyler Webster, in return for a steady steam of Blake largess.

When Luke dropped dead of a brain aneurysm--Krantz is ruthless with characters she no longer needs--Tessa had another opportunity to tell Maggie the truth, but, numbed by grief, she put it off. Then Maggie found out herself, via a letter her grandfather had left to be opened on her 18th birthday.

"Crushed, flayed . . . stripped, mocked," Maggie renounced Tessa and her millions, walked out on the Websters (except for their warm puppy of a son, Barney), rented a room in Manhattan, got a job at an auction house and became "one of the bright-eyed, swift, strong, stunningly self-possessed young women who strode the streets of the city as if they owned them."

Now Tessa sees Maggie's job as the key to their reconciliation. The auction house, not quite in the same league as Christie's or Sotheby's, will do anything she asks in return for the right to sell her magnificent jewel collection. Tessa's condition: Maggie must be in charge of publicity. That will force them to work in close proximity, however uncomfortably, for six months--time enough?

Quite possibly, because of the kind of people Tessa and Maggie are. Life knocks them down but doesn't damage them emotionally. This is one of Krantz's secrets: Her rich and famous characters are folks just like us, or like who we think we'd be if fortune smiled on us: essentially unspoiled, capable of passionate love, giddy delight, fierce ambition--the whole repertoire, with adjectives attached.

It's only the hangers-on, like Tessa's embittered mother and Tyler Webster's wife, Madison, dependent on Luke's money and hating it, who have the other kinds of feelings: choked-off, corrosive. In Krantz's universe, the successful people are also rich in spirit. Tessa, Maggie, Luke, Barney, Tessa's second husband, Sam--all rise above their own flaws and the envious people who would hold them back.

For them, even Hollywood is no snake pit. Tessa's career is marred by neither professional failure nor personal betrayal; it intersects those other, darker literary depictions of the movie world--such as Joan Didion's "Play It as It Lays" and Robert Stone's "Children of Light"--at no point whatsoever.

Go ahead, Krantz encourages us. Dream. And if those dreams ever come true--well, she offers us all kinds of tips on how to live the world-class life. How to walk into Tiffany's and buy the best pearls and care for them. What to look for in a couturier dress or a 50-carat emerald. How to get the best doctor in Brazil to rush to a hotel suite in Rio in an emergency without tipping off the press. How those glamorous auctions work. Go ahead, she says. Tragedies and all, it's great fun.

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