Picks and Pans Review: His Little Women

updated 05/21/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Judith Rossner

Rossner's first novel since her 1983 psychoanalytical romp. August, has the makings of a good potboiler. It's not. Nor is it the kind of serious fiction that made her reputation.

The aimless story focuses on Sam Pearlstein, a self-absorbed Hollywood producer, and his four daughters by three wives. In bitter contrast to the Louisa May Alcott sisters the title mocks, the Pearlstein girls grow up in various kinds of solitary confinement, deprived of their father's attention, unable to find comfort in one another.

Lawyer Nell Berman, the tale's narrator, recalls that she met her half-siblings when she was a high school senior. Louisa Abrahms, the daughter Sam abandoned on the East Coast, proves a vicious rival for his affection; "the little girls," Sonny and Liane, seem mere ciphers, brats who grow into drugged-out adolescents.

The girls' fates converge at a libel trial where Louisa, author of a family-inspired novel, Joe Stalbin's Daughters, must prove that one unsavory character is not modeled after a real person. This theme—art's relationship to reality—seems to be Rossner's prime concern. The many ruminations on the subject include Louisa's that "The fiction writer always seems to be breaking some contract with reality her friends and relatives were sure she'd signed."

Louisa's break with reality, however, isn't very interesting. Despite lots of vivid characters and action that veers from movie studio to feminist magazine to law office to a soft-core porn publisher's palace, the novel never seems more than a well-crafted exercise, devoid of truth—or sincerity. (Summit, $19.95)

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