Thursday, May 5, 2011
Belladonna, by Karen Moline
March, 1999 Warner Books
I only just discovered this novel, which happened to be a bestseller when first published in hardcover in 1998. I was doing random Google searches around Harold Robbins (yes, I had time to kill) and came upon a contemporary review which referred to this novel as "Harold Robbins meets The Story Of O." This piqued my interest, and I immediately looked the novel up. I thought I'd stumbled upon trash fiction gold when I read the plotline, as aptly summarized on the back cover of the mass market paperback edition:
Who is Belladonna? The year is 1935 and she is Isabella Ariel Nickerson, an innocent Midwestern girl visiting London for the first time. But she is soon to be torn from the world she knows. Abducted by a cabal of wealthy aristocrats, she will become the sacrificial lamb in a ritual of domination and submission that will rob her of her freedom, her dignity, and her identity. Slowly, the girl known as Isabella disappears and in her place a new woman is born. Masked and bejeweled, the mysterious toast of New York high society, she now calls herself Belladonna. And she lives for one purpose only...revenge.
Yes, this had all the makings of a trash fiction classic. And it's a whopper of a novel, 564 pages of small print and dense blocks of narrative on each and every page. The promise was there: the ruination angle, the revenge angle, the whole scenario with the masked Belladonna, who runs a nightclub in '50s NYC in which every employee is also masked (and also secret agents to boot), a nightclub equipped with hidden cameras and microphones...all of it, as I say, trash fiction gold. But unfortunately Belladonna is guilty of the worst crime a trashy novel can commit: it's boring.
The first and major problem is the voice and tone of the novel. Our narrator is Tomasino Cennini, a Brooklynite Italian who does not come off as fabulous as Moline intends him to be. Rather, Tomasino blusters through the novel in a tone Moline wants to be delicious but ends up being aggravating. Constant asides, constant winks to the reader, constant moments where he actually stops to congratulate himself on his storytelling skills and his way with words. The voice Moline creates for Tomasino is reminiscent of a 19th century man of letters, when in reality he'd probably sound more like Tony "Da War Of Da Woilds" Danza. Unfortunately Tomasino is our guide through the dense text, jumping to and fro in the tale, forever getting in the way. His constant eruptions of "Oh ho" over the occasional (grating) witticism are especially annoying.
The second problem is that the novel is not nearly as trashy as it wants to be. This goes beyond the completely unexpected and unwanted finale -- which I'll get to later -- but the entire abduction and submission storyline itself. The sections in which we witness Isabella's kidnapping and drafting into the world of submission are related via diary excerpts (all in ugly italics) which read like watered-down imitations of The Story Of O. Unfortunately these excerpts come later in the novel, long after Tomasino has done his damage.
The idea of a masked, vengeance-minded lady running a hot nightclub in '50s New York is also underplayed. The novel jumps about from the '30s to the '50s and even a bit beyond, but really there are no topical details for each decade; it's as if the entire tale occurs in one bland tunnel of time. You get no feeling for life in the New York of the 1950s, or in Italy in the aftermath of World War II, mostly because our protagonists have separated themselves from the outside world, but also because our narrator Tomasino is too busy wasting our time with incidental details.
Another big failing with this novel: in most every instance, Moline tells rather than shows. How many times must Tomasino tell us Belladonna is beautiful? How many times can he tell us how consumed with vengeance she is? How many times can he infer what horrors she underwent while in captivity? Again, the impression of a 19th century novel; Moline has the makings here of a true trash classic but writes it as if she's in the Victorian era.
But again...the potential was there. Young midwestern girl kidnapped while visiting London in the mid-1930s, kept in s&m captivity for over a decade by an evil British lord -- who, in time, she becomes pregnant by. She escapes with the help of Tomasino and his brother Matteo, Italian Americans who were castrated by Mussolini-supporters due to their lack of support for Il Duce. She takes along her child, a daughter named Bryony, but she is certain she also had a son, Byrony's twin -- a son who is still in captivity. After meeting a wealthy old Italian nobleman who acts as this novel's version of Abbe Faria (the Count of Monte Cristo's teacher), our heroine finds herself a wealthy young widow who is still consumed with vengeance. She decides to lure the members of "The Club" to her; she only need create a place they will all flock to. So, using her massive resources, she builds the "Club Belladonna" in NYC, which of course is instantly the talk of the town; here she awaits her enemy.
This entire Club Belladonna sequence is unintentionally hilarious. For one, the cost of running the place would be astronomical. Let alone the army of masked staffers, each of whom have a separate job in addition to their official one; the majority of them are leftover spies from WW2 who, Tomasino repeatedly tells us, are just thrilled to have an espionage sort of job after the war. Anyway, they monitor guests and listen to secretly-stashed microphones and watch from hidden TV monitors. The entire club is a sort of two-way mirror, with every guest watched from multiple hidden outlets. Even the table adornments are secretly wired for sound.
It's all ridiculous -- especially when Tomasino again goes into endless detail about how hard it is to actually get inside the club: Matteo and another masked guard stand outside with a costumed dog (even the dogs wear costumes here); if the dog barks at you, you don't get in. Moline also spends endless pages going over intended "delicious" scenes where Belladonna metes out some "punishment" to guests who cause scenes. And Belladonna herself, you see, is almost like a ghost in her own club; sometimes she's there, sometimes she's not, and she never touches anyone and rarely talks to them. Yet people flock to the club in hopes of seeing her, and impromptu fashions break out across NYC of women trying to wear masks and costumes just like the instantly-famous Belladonna. In reality the place would go under in a month.
But the potential of the storyline keeps you reading...Belladonna must have her vengeance. So I'm going to politely skip the unwarranted finale in which she's suddenly living down south as a happy housewife. Just take a gander at some of the online reviews and you will see how furious about 99% of the readership is with this lackluster climax. Again, it's as if Moline has pussyfooted with the material she herself has created. She knows it's trash -- how could she not? Yet she's afraid to go all the way with it. She wants Belladonna to be a creature of vengeance and fury, yet she also wants her to be a good-natured and loving human being. It's as if Moline herself can't make up her mind what she wants the novel to be, and so it suffers.
Yes, Belladonna suffers from the same thing the majority of fiction suffers from in this miserable modern age: it aspires to be Literary, capital "L." Even when it's trash the modern novel must be written as if it's the most precious thing. That industry review which compared this novel to Harold Robbins is disingenuous, both to Moline and Robbins. No one in their right mind could ever accuse Harold Robbins of aspiring to Literature...but then, the guy knew what he was writing: trash. And his trashy novels all have a primal drive, something Belladonna could've benefited from.
In the old days of trash fiction, there would generally be an "in the tradition of" type of novel which would follow on the heels of the latest bestseller. I just wish someone had written an "in the tradition of" type of novel for Belladonna, one which delivered on the trashy and lurid promise which Moline squandered in her own.