The rise and near fall of a young Italian-Scottish singing sensation—a fictional composite of Shirley Temple, Liza Minelli, and Brittany Spears, among others.
Maria Tambini grows up on the isolated Scottish Island of Bute, raised by her unmarried mother. In 1979, Maria is a typical 12-year-old who loves candy and is devoted to her best friend Kalpana, daughter of the local Indian doctor. But Maria’s incredible singing voice sets her apart. After her uncle Alfredo arranges for a talent scout to hear her sing, Maria is off to London to live with her new manager and appear as an undefeatable contestant on Opportunity Knocks, hosted by an aging song-and-dance man who recognizes Maria’s talent and warns her about its power. It’s hard to decide just how much even Maria herself hungers for celebrity once her ambitious manager divides her from her family and sets up an exhausting appearance schedule. While Maria is the central subject, for much of the story she remains a mystery seen primarily through the eyes of the various people in her life. Many of these come more vibrantly to life than Maria herself, in particular her mother and grandmother, whose tortured histories and failures shadow Maria. Scottish journalist and novelist O’Hagan (Our Fathers, 1999, etc.) strongly suggests that celebrity robs the individual of personality—as he shows in the sad, dwindling correspondence between Maria and Kalpana as Kalpana grows into an educated, well-rounded young woman and Maria’s life narrows the more famous she becomes. She makes no friends but is always ready to please her elders and her public. Gradually, the desire to please turns Maria into an anorexic/bulimic who’s hospitalized periodically for exhaustion. Stalked by a fan who, a bit heavy-handedly, represents Maria’s public, she eventually finds happiness with a man who knew and cared for her as a boy on Bute before she was a star.
Haunting and rewarding as an intimate family chronicle and journalistic take on the entertainment industry, based, we’re told, “on the life story of a famous singer.”