It is obviously not lost upon Charlotte Vale Allen that fame -- the fascination with it, the longing for it and the question of whether the chosen few upon whom it has fallen are really different from the rest of us -- is a lingering preoccupation with the American public. It is also the central allure of the Hollywood novel.
As Hollywood novels go, "Time/Steps" is ambitious and literate, pushing at the confines of the genre without really transcending them. This is largely a book about fame and its accompanying glamor. Even so, there is enough history, trivia and technical detail peppered throughout to lull the beach or bedside reader into the mildly pleasurable sensation of being informed while being entertained and occasionally titillated.
The book covers nearly 60 years in the life of one Beatrice (Bea) Crane, the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic, indifferent mother, who rises from the Depression-era slums of Toronto and dances and romances her way to international stardom.
Allen, the author of "Promises," "Intimate Friends" and more than 20 other books, is obviously never at a loss for sheer verbiage. In the earlier chapters, in fact, she seems to expend far too much word power in rather clumsy efforts to get her story rolling. It is here that the characters seem particularly sketchy and the dialogue wooden as it succumbs to the demands of propelling the plot.
But about a third of the way through "Time/Steps," the author -- through a series of fortuitous and only slightly incredible coincidences -- does finally maneuver her wholesomely likable heroine into her Hollywood mansion. Here, Bea wastes little time in winning an Academy Award, developing an increasingly complex and troubled sex life, and finding happinessincreasingly elusive in Tinseltown.
Soon Bea is confronted with crises that test her mettle and bring the story to life. First there is a tempestuous romance with Bobby Bradley, her childhood friend and dancing partner, who, with Bea's help, also becomes a big star. There is endless humiliation at the hands of a tyrannical studio mogul named Ludie Meyers, who forces her to undergo first an abortion and then a nose job. There is the almost fatal assault and rape that she suffers at the hands of a jealous and deranged costar named Dickie DeVore.
At the very spine of this epic, though, is the love triangle that develops when Bea falls into a nurturing but largely sexless marriage with a gay film director named Hank Donovan, while maintaining her longstanding but often troubled love relationship with Bobby. And later there are still more troubles: a bout with cancer, more humiliations at the hands of a spiteful daughter, and the dreaded Louella Parsons, who always seems to be lurking in the shadows, in search of a scoop or a scandal.
*Allen's evocations of Hollywood of the '30s and '40s are lavish and obviously well researched. Fleeting appearances are made by Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, John Barrymore and Basil Rathbone, among others. Entire paragraphs are devoted to describing a particular gown at a particularly opulent ball. We even learn that, in the 1930s, "Lillian Millicent Entwhistle climbed to the top of the letter H (in the big Hollywood sign) and jumped to her death."
"Time/Steps" is a far from perfect Hollywood novel. During one angry confrontation, a friend tells Bea, "There is a definite subtext to this conversation." Is that really how people talk in Hollywood? And even though the reader senses that Bea has matured as a result of the passing years and their triumphs and crises, her character remains too unrelentingly wholesome and other-directed to be believable.
Still, this is a highly entertaining and frequently insightful study of the building, breaking and remaking of a star that dramatically records the toll that this process sometimes exacts from the human being beneath the public image.
The reviewer is the author of the biography "George Jones: The Saga of an American Singer."