Book: Loitering with good intentions

ROYAL BLUE by Christina Oxenberg, Quartet pounds 15
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The Independent Culture
It Is tempting to dismiss, a little spitefully, a first novel by an apparently B-list celebrity author whose sisters are Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia and Catherine Oxenberg, who left Dynasty to play Princess Diana in a mini-series. But before one condemns Christina Oxenberg's story of a little rich girl, it is only fair to read it; literary snobs will be dealt as short shrift as the appalling aristocrats who people these pages.

Maria Moses, the wry, likeable teenage heroine of Royal Blue, eschews both self-pity and the snobbery which comes from connections. Her family and associates are cold, distant jet-setters; her mother, a princess who inherited "a rusting title from long- defunct European royalty", is "genetically inclined toward encouraging serfdom in the folks who loiter in her life", with at least one unpaid court jester, confessor and secretary for adulatory purposes. Her children, unless they loiter, are forgotten.

Meanwhile, Maria's father - if he is her father; it is never confirmed - dangles money in front of his children's faces, bribing them to praise him. On taking their photographs, he instructs: "Everybody say 'caviar'! Say, 'Please, Daddy, more caviar!'"

The book tells of Maria's progress through boarding school and several sets of step-parents. Pages are dotted with exclamation marks; they are a prerequisite for the easily-bored, as fleeting as the excitement they purport to portray. Oxenberg creates a languid, ferociously beautiful and barbarous world, with an atmosphere reminiscent of that which pervades the work of F Scott Fitzgerald.

Failed relationships abound in Maria's story, invariably commencing: "He's it! He's the one! Sensitive, charming, funny, good looking ... And he's mad about me!" and ending with: "Why didn't I listen to my instincts? I knew there was something wrong with him when I first laid eyes on the son of a bitch."

Meanwhile, soul-wrenching moments stand out starkly in lives as thin and pathetically festive as confetti. Pathos seeps from the collision between raw feeling and triviality; when Maria is told that her only friend, Alison, has died, for example, she remembers the closeness of her mother's thumb, "rubbing almost imperceptibly against the bone of my wrist", followed by the aloof command: "Calm down, darling. Mama's in no mood for theatrics."

Oxenberg shows herself a master at pulling away comfortable, familiar ground. The trademark fire-engine-red lipstick worn by Maria's mother is a potent symbol of their relationship (her mother's arrival signals disaster, yet also the possibility of relief). And there are clever surrogates in surreptitious details: Maria fusses over her grandmother's Russian miniatures, clinging to her battered suitcase and the ghosts of Alison and her vanished father-figure Charlie to shore up the tatters of her life.

Even without a plausible plot, the book would entice, with the dark, ugly side of wealth glinting from a profusion of detail, observed from Maria's alternately childish and cynical stance. She seems to stand at an angle to the narrative, never quite confronting the reality of the events she relates.

As it is, the plot is so unbelievable it seems wholly true. Our sympathy - if we are allowed any - is entirely with Maria, who lets her mother off as "a charming and bizarre and utterly ineffectual fool" after the latter sells up and moves to America without thinking to inform her young daughter, still at boarding school. The melodramatic, despairing yet oddly perky denouement is perfect; things can only get better, surely?

It is the small, unimportant points of life - the smell of coffee, the colour of the walls - which become the rocks of Maria's existence in this novel. Oxenberg, writing with the sure, blase touch of the insider, makes much of them, revealing the fragility of life. It is an awful story in many ways, but one in which a laugh is never far away.