Huge-voiced if small for her age, Scottish singer Lena Zavaroni won the British TV talent show Opportunity Knocks as a young girl in the mid ’70s and remained a telly fixture for years until severe anorexia derailed her career. The potted bio of Maria Tambini, protagonist of Andrew O’Hagan’s second novel, would read much the same. The author has resisted interpretations of Personality as straightforward roman à clef, though Zavaroni was a household name over the pond (she died just four years ago, weighing 50 pounds), as was oleaginous Opportunity Knocks host Hughie Green, a Martin Short burlesque of framable showbiz aphorisms, who merits the fleshiest cameo of the star-studded book. (After Maria performs for the Reagans, the First Lollipop whispers encouragingly in her ear, “A girl can never be too thin.”)
Though Personality‘s elements—celebrity lifestyles, eating disorders, overbearing mothers—may scan like the table of contents for an aseptic women’s mag, O’Hagan circumvents the fame-pathology bottleneck through sheer historical scope (Maria resembles her lost aunt Sofia, who died during the internment of Italians in Britain during World War II) and a prolific interplay of voices. As in Todd Haynes’s Barbie biopic of Karen Carpenter, Superstar, the accusatory screech of the stage mother echoes loudest.