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Knowles' most recent novel, A Stolen Past (1983), was a bland mÉlange of roman à clef reminiscences and wisps of intrigue from the Russian Revolution's aftermath. Such a mild diversion, however, seems vigorous and compelling when compared with this new exercise in limp nostalgia: the superficial, uninvolving life-story of Alexandra (Axie) Reed, star of stage and screen--recalled in flashbacks as the 50-year-old actress lies seriously ill in a Southhampton, L. I., hospital. (Axie's condition is typically blurry: she's had a small stroke, it seems, but is in gravest danger from the effects--internal bleeding--of her subsequent fall.) Axie's cousin--another one of Knowles' milquetoast narrators--fills in some of the star's bio: the upper-crust background; the many triumphs; the recent decision to more or less retire, now that starring roles are hard to find. Other hangers-on contribute recollections and impressions. But most of the vignettes are recalled by Axle herself, semiconscious, as she faces the likelihood of death with little regret. (""Too much is broken, and I am sinking toward the end, but this is not happening before I have lived."") She remembers her early affair with a mentor/director. In the novel's longest sequence by far, she recalls her stay on a Greek isle with the young, rich Talouris brothers: forceful Spyros adores her, but it's enigmatic Lambros she marries--after a liberating sex-interlude with a crude Greek stranger. (The cultural clichÉs here are nearly comical.) She recalls the discovery that she couldn't have children, the subsequent divorce (though all the Talourises still dote on her). And, after flirting heavily with self-pity and suicide, Axle decides to keep on living: ""And the ocean and the leaves and the funny little plant and the crickets and she Axle was alive still too and this life was precious and unknowable and the gift sublime. . ."" Through it all, however, Axie remains a two-dimensional bore whose Hepburn-like charisma has to be taken entirely on trust. The show-business details are consistently unconvincing; even the high-society milieu (usually a plus in Knowles' fiction) is droopy. So the result is an earnest, moist, disjointed character-portrait--without drama, charm, humor, or psychological conviction.

Pub Date: April 23rd, 1986
Publisher: Dutton