by Alan Epstein

Fulfilling a longtime fantasy, writer Alan Epstein moved to Rome with his wife and two school-age sons five years ago, and this charming, Peter Mayle-like insider's view is the result: an unabashed love letter celebrating the allure, frustrations, quirks and joys of life in the Eternal City. Lively vignettes explicate Roman attitudes toward sex (quite liberal, especially when it comes to adultery), food (all good, all the time), technology (not to be trusted; better to have 10 people doing the job of one computer) and style (impeccable, even when picking up the dry cleaning). Epstein's hungry eye and gift for storytelling more than make up for a bit of repetition and self-indulgence, and in the end we're left with a rich picture of living "at the apex of what is most profound about life," as the author calls Rome. "What it offers in the way of beauty, of sensuality, of creativity," says Epstein, 51, "no other city can match." (Morrow, $20)

Bottom Line: Book yourself a one-way ticket

by Candace Bushnell

Like a modern-day Holly Golightly, Janey Wilcox is a glamor girl for hire. But instead of escaping with her $50 for the powder room, Janey, a model and onetime movie star, stays with her lovers, provided they offer a summer house in the Hamptons. When asked how her acting career is going, she replies, "I've been acting every day of my life."

Welcome to the (even) seamier side of Sex and the City. Bushnell, whose '96 book spawned the HBO series, is back with a new cast of Manhattan society apparatchiks more intriguing than Carrie and her crew. By rights we should detest the four blondes of this addictive story collection: Wealthy and beautiful, they whine incessantly and set feminism back decades with laments like "Would I be anything without a man?" Yet, we sympathize. Bushnell is no F. Scott Fitzgerald, but by breathing life into her sex-happy social set, she reveals the tarnish beyond the glitz. The dialogue provides the laughs. "I would say," declares one, "that the superficialities are the more important thing in every aspect of life." (Atlantic Monthly, $24)

Bottom Line: A platinum read

by Ki Hackney and Diana Edkins

If diamonds are a girl's best friend, then pearls are her lifelong companions. At least that's the impression left by this elegant ode to the world's most precious beads. At first glance, Pearls appears to be all about the pictures. Here's Daryl Hannah, draped only in multiple strands and a white blanket. There's Grace Kelly in a ladylike choker. Why, after all, would anyone want to read 225 pages about a shiny bauble secreted by an oyster?

For many reasons, as it turns out. Hackney and Edkins wisely allow fascinating historical figures and celebrities to drive their narrative. In one memorable passage we learn of a massive pear-shaped pearl presented by an explorer to a Spanish king some four centuries before Richard Burton gave it to Elizabeth Taylor as a $37,000 Valentine's Day gift in 1969. Such intriguing tales—of royals (from Elizabeth I to Princess Diana), society icons (including Jackie O, who, like Coco Chanel, wore fakes) and movie stars (from Lillie Langtree to Uma Thurman)—elevate People & Pearls from the shallow depths of the coffee table to place of pride on the bookshelf. (HarperCollins, $40)

Bottom Line: Surprisingly lustrous

by Eloisa James

Page-turner of the week

Lady Sophie York just doesn't get it. As a young aristocratic woman in 19th-century London, she ought to be shy, chaste and more interested in finding a husband than in reading books. Instead she studies languages, neglects to wear a corset under her bosomy gowns (to the horror of her mother) and rejects every man who asks for her hand. Only the dashing Patrick Foakes, with his unruly black hair and devil's-arch eyebrows, can tame her. She loves him. He loves her. But both are too proud to admit it, even after deciding to marry.

Though the idea of reading a historical romance may cause some to quiver (and not in a good way), James has penned a fun follow-up to last year's Potent Pleasures. "He smelled like a midsummer night," she writes of one of Patrick and Sophie's many trysts. "Like the midsummer madness that was racing through her veins like potent canary wine." Romance writing does not get much better than this. It's cliché-ridden, to be sure, but that's what makes this Pleasure such a wonderfully guilty one. (Delacorte, $19.95)

Bottom Line: Steamy, satisfying romantic romp

>Charles Spencer

He has just written The Spencers, his second book about his clan's aristocratic history. But Charles Spencer says he will never write about his older sister Princess Diana. "I thought it was inappropriate for me to do so," says Spencer, 36, whose impassioned address at Diana's funeral earned him worldwide acclaim. "That's a completely separate volume, which I am never going to write."

Fortunately for Spencer, his family's 500-year history includes characters with lives every bit as dramatic as their best-known descendant's.

Spencer's favorite is Sarah, a 17th-century duchess whose self-made fortune grew so large that the Bank of England came to her for loans. "I loved her scheming and the way she set about things ruthlessly," Spencer says.

Spencer also writes about his forebear Father Ignatius, whose supposed ability to carry out miracles has put him in line for sainthood. No less illustrious was Henry Spencer, a 17th-century courtier and politician who criticized King Charles I for being inaccessible but then refused to join an armed revolt against him. He died defending his king. "There's a human tragedy there," Spencer says. "If you put duty before your beliefs, then it can lead to disaster."

Now divorced and living mainly at Althorp, his family's estate (where Diana is buried on an island), Spencer divides his time between his four children and his writing. Next will be a novel that has nothing to do with his family. "I don't have a subject yet," he says. "I'm waiting for something to come to me."

  • Contributors:
  • Hope Reeves,
  • Anne-Marie O'Neill,
  • Jennifer Wulff,
  • Simon Perry.