Picks and Pans Review: A House of Secrets

updated 08/19/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/19/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Patti Davis

This has not been Nancy Reagan's year. Not long ago, there was Kitty Kelley's slash-and-burn biography of the former First Lady. And now—how sharper than a serpent's tooth to have a daughter with a word processor—presidential progeny Patti weighs in with her third novel, which, with a maternal character who makes Medea look like June Cleaver, will doubtless be thought a roman à clef.

The ramshackle House of Secrets centers on Carla Lawton, a headstrong, misunderstood young woman whose mother, Rachel, hates her. Hates her because she isn't sweet and pure like her dear departed sister. Indeed, one night Carla overhears her mother murmur, "Sometimes I think the wrong child died."

When Rachel catches little Carla in the kitchen sharing a late night slice of lemon meringue pie with the family dog, she insists the child finish of the whole pie. She snoops in Carla's room and burns all her-daughter's supposedly subversive short stories.

Nancy Reagan horror stories familiar to those who read Kelley's book show up with unsettling regularity. Like Nancy, Rachel insists that her wayward daughter clung to her innards during birth, making labor an exercise in agony. As Nancy reportedly did, Rachel slaps first and asks questions later. Like Nancy, Rachel is status conscious, cold and distant.

Embarrassing, repetitive, misogynistic and rich in psychobabble, the novel has the whiff of an adolescent's diary. If one line of description or explication could do the job, three lines would do the job that much better, figures Davis, whose literary hero seems to be Rod McKuen.

"I taste sleep on him, smell sex drifting out from under the covers, and I close my eyes again, painting the morning gray in my mind," goes a typical passage. "I want clouds to move into the sky as Beck moves deeper into me, and rain to pour down and wash away the dust we've let gather on us."

And guess what readers will want? Their money back. (Birch Lane, $18.95)

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