In the 1930s, when Kenya's expatriate community was romping through its golden age, there was a lot of talk about the ambrosial quality of the highland air, an elixir of sunshine and altitude that was said to induce in whites a kind of euphoria. It was the air that stoked social life to a blue flame, people said, fueling passions and follies that gave the colony its enduring image as the white playground of the western world.
Much later it was learned that the highland air had been abetted by goodly doses of cocaine. But never mind. There's never been a shortage of blather about Kenya or a dearth of people ready to surrender common sense and believe it. Fed on "Out of Africa" and Elspeth Huxley, half a million tourists travel to Kenya every year, searching for signs of the fading colonial past, poring over safari brochures as the theme song from "Born Free" runs through their heads, anxious to reach the magical out there where wildlife abounds and the manor houses are festive all day.
To this add the memoir of Betty Leslie-Melville, a woman from Baltimore who appears to have written this book in large part just to let you know she made it. Why you should care is another matter, but at least she tips her hand early. If the book jacket doesn't scare you off ("They opened their hearts and their homes to everyone, from natives to sheikhs to personalities that included Walter Cronkite, Richard Chamberlain, Jack Paar, and Marlon Brando"), the opening of the first chapter certainly will: "Just after Jock and I had met on the beach of the Indian Ocean in Kenya, we each made a secret wish, unknown to the other, on a star that streaked across the African sky, that we would be together forever. It wasn't forever, but it was for twenty magical, scintillating, exuberant years full of mutual joy and adventure and accomplishment -- a love most of us dream of but experience only briefly, if at all. It was as if the falling star had turned us into a modern-day prince and princess and spun our lives into an idyllic fairy tale in a never-never land."
Fighting an urge to reply "Prove it," the reader presses on, but to no avail. "A Falling Star" reads more like a product of a vanity press, and it seems to have been calculated to take advantage of the vogue for East Africa generated by the filming of Karen Blixen's novel "Out of Africa." Its style most resembles one of those newsletter Christmas cards, half greeting, half preening. Leslie-Melville, whom the jacket describes as a poor girl from Baltimore, met "the dashing grandson of a British earl" while living in East Africa in the early '60s and in short order jettisoned her first husband, from whom she was separated, married the dashing grandson and lived, by her account, in virtually unblemished happiness for the next 18 years, leading wildlife safaris, working to save the endangered Rothschild giraffe and meeting a lot of celebrities in the process. That life ended with the death of her husband.
Jock Leslie-Melville, who is referred to through much of this odd book by his nickname, Jockieduk, died of a brain tumor not too long ago, and his widow seems to have written this memoir in a state of profound grief. How else to explain persistent passages like this: "I put my head on Jock's shoulder and told him how wonderful he was and how beautiful he was, because he was, and how I loved him, not only with my heart and mind, but also with my eyes, and how I'd rather look at him than any sunset . . . And then he told me how much he loved me and how beautiful I was . . . "
"A Falling Star" is all about love and loss in Africa, but Betty Leslie-Melville is no Karen Blixen. She tells her story in a perky style that must have served her well in the safari business. Like a tour operator flogging a crowded itinerary, she keeps the bus rolling, but it would have been more interesting, however, if she'd permitted herself to stop occasionally, and tell us what it really felt like to be an American woman thrown into her husband's world. Even if it was what she lusted for, it couldn't have been all roses. Instead, we get tedious accounts of the couple's safaris, fund-raising, social conquests and U.S. lecture tours, with paeans to personal friends and acquaintances thrown into the bargain.
And there are pictures. Pictures of the Leslie-Melvilles (or Bettyduk and Jockieduk) on the lawn of their large Nairobi house, feeding the giraffe they rescued, celebrities feeding the giraffe ("Our friend and visitor Richard Chamberlain loves to feed Daisy"), Jockieduk and Bettyduk standing in front of William Holden's Rolls-Royce and so on. There are no Africans in these pictures, but that's all right, because there are hardly any in the book. This is a tale of white man's Africa where the social life is international, wild animals are the fashionable passion and Africans are servants or high government officials with European educations. Some of the most interesting periods of Kenyan history -- the early days of independence, for example -- appear only as backdrops for this love affair, which, as the reader is reminded on every other page, was made on Parnassus. Wading through it is a little like attending a lecture by someone who has come back from Africa with a set of fascinating slides, but insists on standing in front of the screen while discussing them.
*According to the book flap, this is Leslie-Melville's sixth book (the others were stories of work among wildlife, with titles like "There's a Rhino in the Rosebed") and the first she has written without her husband. It was evidently intended as something more serious than the other books, but the style, "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" crossed with "The Flame Trees of Thika," just doesn't work. It's only in the last pages, as Leslie-Melville recounts her husband's deterioration and death, that you give even the remotest hoot about any of these people. Her evident anguish draws you in, and the reader is moved to care for the first time about her and her story. But it comes too late. Most readers will never get that far.
The reviewer is a reporter for the Style section of The Washington Post.