About 30 pages into this predictable but enjoyable novel by the author of Murder in Little Egypt you start expecting to hear Judy Garland burst into a reprise of "Born in a Trunk."
O'Brien's heroine is just that kind of character: A Kansas-born daughter of a charming, if not too successful, vaudeville impresario, she wants to be a serious thespian. But when the impresario dies young, the girl is sent to work as a model-actress by her stage mother.
O'Brien, son of old film stars George O'Brien and Marguerite Churchill, clearly knows Hollywood's early days, and his take on show folk has bite: "Actors were regarded as low-class, unreliable folk, mainly because their incomes were irregular and because they tried to entertain people instead of cheating on their taxes, bribing public officials, and exploiting the poor. And they showed their emotions."
But the real strength of this book is that heroine Margaret is hardly the typical, goody-two-shoes naïf thrust into the studio system against her will. Both witty and wily, she's given to sarcasm—"The company included 20 or 30 prostitutes—real ones, I mean, not just ordinary actresses." Yet she also maintains a touching friendship with an old-time vaudevillian—once her father's friend—even after he's been brought up on morals charges.
Never mind that O'Brien's prose is at times anachronistic—people "split from" each other long before the expression existed. He's created a Hollywood actress you aren't embarrassed to love. (Morrow, $20.95)