Picks and Pans Review: An Inconvenient Woman

updated 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Dominick Dunne

When the ambulance attendants emerge from Jules Mendelson's bedroom, his wife, Pauline, and a few loyal servants gather to watch the zippered body bag descend the impressive winding stairway.

"As they rounded the curve by the third of the six Monet paintings of water lilies," Dunne writes, "the shoulder of one of the attendants hit against the gilded frame of the famous picture and knocked it askew. "Be careful!" called out Pauline from below. It was unclear to the attendant whether her concern was for the welfare of the body or the painting of the water lilies."

No matter. Pauline's life has been falling apart since her billionaire mate collapsed of a heart attack on top of his mistress. Pauline, grande dame of Los Angeles society (the kind that doesn't mingle with movie riffraff), will of course never reveal the extent of her humiliation. "Probably no one ever conducted herself so well in a scandal as Pauline Mendelson," writes Dunne.

He must have been humming to himself as he typed away. This novel—broadly based on the Alfred Bloomingdale-Vicki Morgan scandal that rocked Ronald Reagan's kitchen cabinet—fairly sings with social satire, moving at such a jaunty pace that the reader can't help but be swept along, delighting in the characters while guessing at their identities. There's party-loving Rose Clivedon, always called Poor Rose, so falling-down drunk that she's almost always on crutches. There's a man known only as "the former President" who regales everyone with meandering stories.

Casper Stieglitz, a seedy producer with a constantly running nose, sleazed his way out of a prison sentence by agreeing to make a "community service" film. Hortense Madden, the literary critic, moonlights as an ear-piercing singer in a gay pickup joint. Hector Paradiso, the high-lineaged escort, is found one morning riddled with five bullet holes—clearly, Jules Mendelson reports, a suicide.

That death is what starts the real trouble in this meticulously plotted, always amusing novel about a real-life Pretty Woman and her tycoon. Dunne alternates his own dry narrative with tapes of the "inconvenient woman," Flo March. A red-haired waitress whom Jules buys for his very own, March is the real victim here, as well as the true heroine: Feisty, curious, direct, she proves the most endearing of social climbers.

An Inconvenient Woman circles the nouveau riche territory lambasted by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities. Here, those same fools are far more lovable. Still, the author's point is never lost: In America the rich get away with murder. (Crown, $19.95)

From Our Partners