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Picks and Pans Review: On the Way to the Venus De Milo

updated 03/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Pearson Marx

It says almost everything about wealthy guileless widow Estelle Wolfe that she habitually—and affectionately—taped her husband's snores, then insisted that her two daughters watch while he (noisily) slept. "Isn't he precious?" Estelle would ask. "Isn't he?" Estelle drinks too much, gives away too much, loves too much (at last count, she has rescued a dozen dogs from the pound) and doubts too little. When she receives a letter from one Dr. Count Francesco von Cockleburg, a self-described poet, scholar, linguist, tympanist and martial arts expert claiming a past friendship with her late husband, she opens her Fifth Avenue apartment, her pocketbook and her heart.

Her self-absorbed older daughter Ellen, heretofore concerned primarily with firming her inner thighs, is horrified, believing the count to be a verse-spouting fraud. Her younger daughter Lisanne is bemused while Ellen's husband, Donald, "who was always happy in a state of outrage," is convinced the count is a gigolo.

When Estelle invites Cockleburg to spend the summer at her country house, the pastoral setting quickly—and hilariously—becomes a trysting place and a battlefield. Love and reputations are lost and won as the novel spins itself out.

At its most engagingly madcap, this novel recalls the work of E.F. Benson, the popular British creator of the Lucia novels. But Marx makes a major error two-thirds of the way through when she sends her most interesting character packing and gives too much attention to her least diverting one, thus losing her grip on the story. This isn't helped by aimless musings and apparently irresistible urges to show off a mastery of 30 days to a better vocabulary. "This," she writes at one point, "was a state marked by a profound hebetude, asthenia, inappetence ..." Is it catching? (Simon & Schuster, $21)

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