Flavor or the Month, Olivia Goldsmith

Pocket, 1993, 880 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-79450-7

One of my favorite new words these days is “bonkbuster”, a term used to describe a novel consciously written to have wide commercial appeal and/through a lot of sex in it. As “blockbusters with a lot of bonking in them” go, I don’t think you can go wrong with Olivia Goldsmith’s Flavor of the Month. It’s pure titillating trash from a clever writer, and it makes no apologies for what it is. And, goodness, sometime it’s just so much fun to read novels like that.

Consciously eschewing literary respectability, Goldsmith focuses her novel on a trio of actresses who will eventually come together in America’s #1 television show. The narrative is told “as if” from one of the nation’s foremost scandal-peddler (think Kitty Kelly, herself referenced on the novel’s first page) in some alternate version of 1993’s America. (Naturally, all characters, executives, studios and movies are fictive and should not be meant to represent real-life equivalents, mostly because their fictional equivalents are so much more interesting.)

In short order, we’re introduced to three very different lead actresses: Sweet dumb Texas blonde Sharleen, bitchy rich L.A. brunette Lila and poor homely red-headed New Yorker Mary Jane. Of the three, it is Mary Jane who emerges as our lead protagonist and the moral center around which the rest of the novel will revolve. She is also the one who -initially, anyway- has to change herself the most in order to attain the pinnacle of fame; thanks to an unexpected influx of money, a bad break-up and some old-fashioned determination, Mary Jane undergoes extensive cosmetic surgery, learns some independence and loses a significant fraction of her body weight. When she emerges from the whole process, she’s beautiful, younger and is known by another name. Loosened in L.A. with more than thirty years’ worth of bitterness in an identity ten officially years younger, she quickly becomes the flavor of the month of the town… but will it last?

I won’t spoil it, but Goldsmith certainly appears to be an extremely moralist novelist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; after countless so-called “sophisticated” novels in which everything is painted in various shades of ethical grays, it’s refreshing to read a novel in which characters get what they so richly deserve, whatever their moral alignment. Several members of this novel’s cast go from pleasant to unpleasant and blow their last chance at redemption; Goldsmith’s justice is terrible and often none too swift.

Flavor of the Month takes on the whole celebrity/beauty industry with acceptable gusto. Don’t expect a profound statement on the superficiality of today’s entertainment culture, but do be prepared for a few insightful observations here and there. Goldmsith is a professional at her craft, and she know which levers to use in order to get a rise from her readers and when enough’s enough.

Speaking of arousing readers’ interest, there are certainly enough titillating sex scenes, scandalous behavior and lurid details to satisfy even the most sun-burnt beach reader. Above all, Flavor of the Month is a fun novel, and the speed at which anyone will be able to read this hefty tome speaks for itself. It’s delicious, hypnotic, compelling, often hilarious and wildly catty. Though the 1993 details are starting to be dated (some of the celebrity references almost require a companion guide to understand nowadays, so transient is celebrity pop culture), there’s no denying that Flavor of the Month is exactly what you want if ever you need a big thick diversion.

I don’t think I’m the target readership of Goldmisth’s oeuvre, but after The Bestseller and this, I’m more than ready to become a regular reader of hers. It’s fluff, but it’s smooth fluff with a pleasant degree of cleverness. Perfect summer reading!

[January 2004: In an absolutely mind-boggling ironic twist that wouldn’t be out of place in her novels, Olivia Goldsmith died of complications following… plastic surgery. Strange but true; the type of anecdotes in which the death of an author acts as a cornerstone for an entire career. Her first novel, after all, was The First Wives’ Club…]

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