Shining, happy people

Acclaimed British author Andrew O’Hagan’s second novel is a cautionary tale about the dangers of celebrity, but you wouldn’t guess it from the novel’s languorous opening section, which evokes the childhood of Maria Tambini. An amalgam of Shirley Temple and several other child stars, Maria grows up on the Scottish island of Bute with her Italian immigrant family. Each night, Maria, her single mother, grandmother and uncle head to the local pub, where the elder Tambinis cheer as the little girl belts out songs that make even the Italian-hating Scotsmen at the bar pause and shed a tear.

Here is the beauty of Andrew O’Hagan’s faith in his readership. Before showing us what celebrity does to his ambitious heroine—it basically leaches the personality from her—O’Hagan shows us what innocence will be lost in Maria’s rise to fame. In the quietude of the book’s slow buildup, we meet a 12-year-old who loves candy and curls and has a knack for charming adults. Maria’s mother believes talent is to be used; her uncle thinks of talent as its own reward.

The mother’s viewpoint, of course, wins, and Maria is sent to London, beginning her swift ascension: There’s an agent who spots her, a first miraculous appearance on TV and a hard-driving manager who puts Maria on a punishing tour schedule. She eventually meets and greets all sorts of stars: Johnny Carson, Ronald Reagan, Dean Martin and Les Dawson.

Told from the perspective of people who know Maria, Personality chronicles how her fame is not an explosion but an erasure of sorts. Unlike Michael Jackson, Maria is not deprived of her childhood, but is deprived of the chance to become somebody other than a starlet. She becomes preening, self-involved, spacey and overly concerned with her appearance. In short, she becomes a cliché. Gradually, even these qualities fall aside as Maria slowly becomes eclipsed by her fame. It’s a fitting thematic development for O’Hagan, who has written a terrific book about missing persons, as well as a novel, Our Fathers, that’s a finalist for the Booker Prize.

Toward the end of Personality, Maria begins to disappear physically, as well. She develops anorexia and, in one excruciating scene, cuts up several magazine pictures of women, puts them into a blender and then drinks the concoction: “She ate a little and cried when she found it tasted of nothing.”

Although this dilemma feels familiar—a star burns out and self-destructs; we read it in the tabloids every day—Personality goes beyond most books about celebrity in that it refuses to glamorize the spotlight. Instead, it exposes the awful truth all those Entertainment Tonight interviews can’t seem to express. Celebrity doesn’t allow you to be a person; you become a story. At one point, Maria comes home from the hospital, and her uncle Alfredo worriedly tells her, “We’re gonna get you back to your old self.” Sadly, it’s too late for that. By the end of Personality, that happy girl sucking hard candy by the seashore is a hazy memory.