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After some sharp, involving opening chapters, this 1900-1935 sequel to Charleston (1981) loses much of its steam--shifting to N.Y. and Europe, becoming more a C+ Bette Davis movie than a shapely family saga. Things start off splendidly with a bloody wedding day at the old Tradd plantation: playboy Stuart Tradd weds beautiful, air-headed teenager Margaret Garden (from faded aristocracy)--but Tradd Sr. and the father of one of Stuart's seduction-victims both die in a sudden post-ceremony scuffle. The years through WW I are also full of tangy doings: a smallpox epidemic; the collapse of the Stuart/Margaret marriage (after the birth of Stu Jr. and Peggy); Margaret's one-night stand with Stuart's sweet brother Anson--resulting in baby Garden and Anson's supposed suicide-by-drowning. (The body's never found, and sagavets know what that means.) And there's some Scarlett O'Hara-ish appeal when, impoverished by Stuart's death, Margaret spunkily moves her clan from the plantation to a tenement basement-apartment in the city--pushing her way back into Charleston society. Then, however, after Stu Jr. is killed and Peggy leaves town with a soldier-husband, the novel slows down to focus entirely on little Garden--an ugly duckling, raised mostly by loving blacks, who turns into a raving teenage beauty. . . and wins the adoration of handsome, super-rich Sky Harris, the young Yankee son of Principessa Vicki, the much-divorced new owner of the Tradd plantation. So Garden and Sky marry, not knowing that Vicki (for blood-feud reasons) has sworn secret vengeance on her new daughter-in-law! During the decadent 1920s, in N.Y. and Paris and Monte, Vicki indeed does her best to destroy Garden--annihilating her individuality, getting her addicted to cocaine, encouraging both spouses' infidelities. Garden is a perfect victim at first, then fights back--with help from a French courtesan/mentor, who stresses selfhood and intellect. The marriage is saved; baby Helen is born. But soon comes the Crash, with a penniless Sky falling under his rich mama's spell again. So, amid scandalous divorce-headlines, Garden flees home to a largely hostile Charleston--starting life anew with an antique shop, a gentle suitor, the support of Aunt Elizabeth (heroine of Charleston). . . and little Helen, subject of a Vanderbilt-like custody trial. Some of Ripley's details and character-touches here are fresh and engaging; just as often, however, she indulges in the very corniest sort of melodramatic accidents, twists-of-fate, and period cameos. (Garden teaches Josephine Baker the real Charleston--and tries to stop Isadora Duncan from driving off in that long, long scarf.) Moreover, the dozen or so subplots are ineptly handled--popping up erratically, trailing off, disappearing entirely. The result? An uneven, uncertainly paced soap/saga--but energetic and glamorous enough to come out a notch or two above the standard-issue.

Pub Date: March 23rd, 1984
Publisher: Doubleday