Without any irony at all, let me say that I wish to God I could write this stuff. Churning out epic trash about generations of flame-haired temptresses with “luscious” figures and the
tousle-haired, twinkling-eyed swains who beget further generations of rolling hips and vengeance is a license to mint Krugerrands. And with Star Quality, Joan Collins, indestructible soap diva and boldface presence and sister of trash-factory queen Jackie, becomes the latest inheritor of the marabou mantle that has graced the figurative shoulders of Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, and Judith Krantz. It’s as if everything she touches turns to Gold Look. As Star Quality’s resident villainess says as she casts into flames the
society-column photos of her rivals: “Bitches! Bitches and whores! May they all rot in hell. They deserve everlasting damnation for what they did to me.”
You don’t have to be good to write this stuff—you just have to be good at it, and Collins is. She keeps track of nearly a century’s worth of her complicated pattern of begetting, the better to tighten the plot’s noose neatly over the neck of the deserving. Books like this one are a kind of Mad Libs effort, and Collins studiously plugs in the likeliest nouns and adjectives—”creamy lushness,” “magnificent animal,” “undulating curves,” “slanting aquamarine eyes,” “chiseled cheeks,” “Roman profile.” The plot is a bit of a paint-by-numbers as well, but beach readers vote with their dollars, and the writer who promises sparkling cleavage but doesn’t deliver will end up fondling nothing more luxe than a thank-you note from David Baldacci.
Collins attempts nothing more or less than a condensed history of 20th-century entertainment, as embodied by the Swannell girls, four generations of breathtakingly beautiful, devastatingly sexy natural performers who in turn rule the realms of music hall, film, modeling, television, and music. In 1917, teenage Millie McClancey, an Irish waif of bounteous but unconscious sex appeal, arrives on the doorstep of the Swannell estate in London, where her cousin works as a maid. It isn’t long before Millie catches both the eye of bored scion Toby Swannell and a fever for the theater, and the dynasty is off to the races, bounding from bounder to bounder as each succeeding generation storms her chosen entertainment venue and searches wistfully but energetically for the love that will make her feel whole.
Slipshod, sumptuous, and zippy, the writing is rich with description that signals character psychology with whiplike efficiency and no surfeit of time-wasting nuance—the Rogue, the Hussy, the Minx, the Innocent, and the Grande Dame won’t go around surprising you with a penchant for philately or a weird attachment to a pair of old Wellingtons. The drama is linked in an inexact but can-do manner as it hops from one safe ice floe of brand-name- or trouser-dropping to the next—all of which are, needless to say, appallingly precise.
Because the heroines of such fiction travel in the most high-profile of circles, they can’t help but bear a strong resemblance to their equally fantastical but nevertheless real-life counterparts. So ’40s glamour-girl Vickie is Rita Hayworth without the Cuban blood, tempestuous lesbian model-turned-soap-star Lulu lets ’70s icon Gia live (and even grants her a second career), and underage rocker Millie (Version 2002) is Britney with a guitar—and an excuse for the older women to chuckle at the relative tameness of their past exploits as they watch her grand jete on the Oscars stage while wearing a silver thing with neither a back nor a front (and, presumably, carrying the guitar—a trick Margot Fonteyn, thank god, never attempted).
While Collins’ expedient writing brings little new to the genre, her peculiarly knowledgeable take on the entertainment industry does, insofar as it seems a wonder that the author of Star Quality ever so much as attended a live taping of a sitcom. Sure, she can tell you the difference between being fussed over by Adrian and his makeup minions on the set of a wartime prestige flick and being left to powder oneself between takes in the businesslike atmosphere of a live daily soap. (Collins is currently starring as a manipulative witch on Guiding Light.) But she drops contemporary names into her narrative with vague, wild abandon, smushing unlikely players together into the same party and blithely pairing screen couples at social events. If the celebrity culture described during her version of the ’40s and ’50s seems culled by a Martian whose understanding of the planet comes from old issues of Photoplay, the later decades never seem to have happened on Earth at all.
Collins skips the ’70s—which she may have done in real life—and in the ’80s loses her grip entirely, populating a 1980 L.A. disco with the likes of Ryan O’Neal and Natalie Wood. No flower children, no punk rock, not even Studio 54 penetrates the social cocoons of her heroines’ lives. Collins’ brief, poignant stabs at sociology are heartbreaking—surely the Hyperion editor had enough of a job upon receiving this manuscript, but someone at the publishing house might have tapped Joan on the shoulder before she was allowed to schoolmarmishly instruct us, Pat Robertson-style, that “freedom, emancipation, and equality with men” lead to lesbianism.
Make no mistake, this stuff is garbage, and not garbage of the highest order like that of Krantz, whose narratives have thrust and verve and a lust-inducing, sparkling-water-of-Biarritz lifestyle-greed that none but the most vegan of readers, who aren’t reading these babies anyway, are immune to. It gets the job done, but, though there’s plenty of action to light the way, the four magnificent Swannell girls and their “almost too handsome” swains remain implausible dreams. Collins is weak on the connective tissue of psychology or even lifestyle—she tends to trot out a brief inventory of food and furniture before homing in on the revealing conversation—and aside from love, yearn, and perform, there’s not much for Millie, Vickie, Lulu, or Millie to do. That it takes them 354 pages to do it is a tribute to how hot Collins keeps the popcorn machine.
But then again, it’s not inconceivable that she had some help rising even to this level of bosom-heaving mediocrity, given that Random House took her to court seven years ago in an attempt to get its advance back on a work of fiction the publisher deemed unprintable. But if anyone has taken to heart the heroine ethos—work hard, keep in the public eye, give ’em what they want—it’s Collins, who dominates the pink back cover wearing what looks like a Joan Collins Halloween mask from the Dynasty Collection. You don’t have to buy her book, but you have to admire the woman for finding new ways to be a celebrity. Long may she wave. CP