Vidal's most leisurely novel in his ongoing American chronicle (Empire, 1987, etc.) and--would the plot had some force--his most masterly: spacious, lively, filled with brilliant, soft-focus scenes bolstered with exact cultural details placed to perfection. It also takes some time to warm to and for Vidal's voice to reach a muted Waspishness that gives much pleasure and has none of the hollow notes that marred some earlier entries in this series. Caroline Sanford, the yellow-journalism publisher of Empire, is the nominal leading figure here, but her leading man, leftish movie director Tim O'Farrell, is barely a supportting character, while the foreground is dominated by bigger men--Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding and (returning from Empire) Theodore Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst. Senator James Burden Day, who fathered Caroline's illegitimate daughter Emma (apparently an incipient schizophrenic), carries many scenes without really taking on weight in the reader's mind. In fact, Vidal is so interested in shaping his novel from Washington materials--the issues surrounding WW I, and later the failure of Congress to support Wilson's League of Nations, with the flu epidemic and several famous scandals thrown in--that Hollywood is scanted and given perhaps a third of the novel's pages on the plot twist that Caroline becomes a famous ""mature"" movie heroine in Tim's movies and then herself follows Hearst into movie production. This is a novel that enlarges your sense of daily life and politics in Washington--and that engages you scandal by scandal and issue by issue without engaging you in its leading character's fate. And all ends, quietly, like fireflies on the veranda. Often superbly done, page by page, but also sleep-making in the lack of big effects in its endless chat and cloakroom skulduggery.