The Charlotte Vale Allen fiction entry for 1990--since she seems to churn them out once every year or two--is a contrived tale about a great painter and her amanuensis, written with the same slightly faded hipness apparent in recent efforts like Dream Train and Night Magic. This time out, Allen tells the story of Mattie Sylvester, a gifted student painter in Roaring Twenties New York. But when the tale starts, she's a crotchety 77, hiding away in an island mansion somewhere off the Atlantic Coast, abusing her young secretary, Sarah Kidd, and slowly leaking the story of her life. Sarah knows her as the wife of the great painter Gideon Sylvester, though it comes as no surprise when Mattie reveals that all those glorious paintings hanging in the MOMA are really her own work. The late Gideon, it seems, was in reality a ""vile old puff adder,"" who blackmailed Mattie into complying with the ruse by threatening to separate her from her two sons. As the truth comes out, Mattie also undertakes a make-over on Sarah, bullying her into using cosmetics and setting her up with handsome caretaker Carl Harvey, a troubled Vietnam vet. And as the novel totters to its close, Mattie dishes up another surprise--that she knows Sarah is really a writer, looking for material for a book. All turns out well, of course, with Sarah convincing the artist to let her story finally come out. Given the shaky premise here, it's no wonder that implausibilities arise. Usually Allen pulls this sort of thing off by sheer moxie, but she fails now--largely because the main characters are too flat or duplicitous to like.