by Andrew O'Hagan

View All Available Formats & Editions

Growing up on the Scottish island of Bute, Maria Tambini is a young girl with dreams of escape from her Italian immigrant family. When her amazing voice wins her a talent show at the tender age of thirteen, she is whisked off to London and instant stardom in the entertainment industry.
But even as Maria is celebrating her greatest success, she is waging a


Growing up on the Scottish island of Bute, Maria Tambini is a young girl with dreams of escape from her Italian immigrant family. When her amazing voice wins her a talent show at the tender age of thirteen, she is whisked off to London and instant stardom in the entertainment industry.
But even as Maria is celebrating her greatest success, she is waging a hidden battle against her own body, and becoming in the process a living exhibit in the modern drama of celebrity. Can she be saved by love? Or will she be consumed by an obsessive celebrity culture, family lies, and by her number-one fan?
Based closely on the life story of a famous singer, this stunning novel is at once a rich portrait of an immigrant community and a tragic tale of the hidden costs of celebrity.

Editorial Reviews

"Personality lays bare the darker side of fame with astonishing empathy...Bottom Line: Shining look at stardom."
"O'Hagan is a writer of almost shocking tenderness."
"... elegaic, sepia-toned, in Scottish cadence, adorned with memories of Italian tenors and eras gone by."
The New Yorker
In a decayed resort town on the Isle of Bute in the nineteen-seventies, an Italo-Scottish family pins its hopes on the youngest member, Maria, who is working on her singing and her hair. At thirteen, she is whisked off to London, where she wins a talent contest on television. By sixteen, she is a famous pop singer. By twenty, she is anorexic and half-mad. (Soon she also has a homicidal admirer stalking her.) The analysis of her thoughts, a miasma of fear and narcissism, is the core of the novel, but most of the other characters, too, are lonely and obsessed, and are wandering through a world of junk: candy wrappers, catchphrases, TV shows. At the same time, the book is so bustling and rich -- we get every old lady and barfly on the island, with their letters, diaries, secrets -- that the darkness seems lit from end to end.
The New York Times
O'Hagan's style is enjoyably playful, mixing a variety of different forms -- newspaper articles, interviews, song lyrics, diary entries. Cameos are scattered throughout, including Princess Diana and Nancy Reagan, and the character of Maria, too, is based on an actual figure, the singer Lena Zavaroni. The frequent shifts in tone sometimes give Personality more the feel of a screenplay than a novel: some of the set pieces, especially a subplot involving a stalker, might have dropped in from another genre. But the novel's episodic quality usefully heightens the many juxtapositions: actual and fictional characters, real and unreal, past and present. — Ruth Franklin
The Washington Post
Will Maria succumb to her anorexia, or will Michael help her save herself? It's a soap-opera question, but Andrew O'Hagan doesn't handle it in a soap-opera way. Instead he has written a thoughtful inquiry not merely into the obvious question -- "the perils of being famous too young" -- but also into the opportunities and burdens that great talent entails. "Believe me," the emcee of the TV show says, "you don't invent talent. Talent invents you. It changes your mind and brings you up short." Maria Tambini's story is an object lesson in just that. — Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly
O'Hagan chronicles the rise and fall of a troubled pop singer in his poignant second novel "inspired to some extent by the lives of several dead performers." Young Maria Tambini has a powerful set of pipes: on Scotland's Isle of Bute, where her grandparents immigrated to escape Mussolini, the shy, winsome girl wows residents and wins numerous local talent contests. At 13, she triumphs on TV and moves to London. But as her career hits the fast track, Tambini begins to lose touch with her family and control of her life. Successful albums and appearances with the likes of Dean Martin, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett abound ("You are such a talented little person I want to kill you," Cavett says), but Tambini develops a laxative habit and begins both starving herself and vomiting. Soon, hospital visits become a regular part of her routine. O'Hagan introduces a romantic subplot when Maria meets a kind former classmate, Michael, who helps nurse her through her struggles, and the climax features a well-crafted confrontation with a deranged fan who continues to stalk Maria even after her career has peaked. Many of the rags-to-riches music scenes are familiar, but O'Hagan portrays Maria's food problems with grace and compassion (diet soda feels "like a passing shower of rain inside, and harmless, under control, the taste of zero"). The additional story line about the struggles of Maria's mother, Rosa, is more hit-or-miss. This novel is a solid addition to O'Hagan's body of work, but the absence of a truly compelling plot makes it a bit of a disappointment after the critical acclaim for Our Fathers, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. (Aug.) Forecast: O'Hagan, who was named one of Granta's best young British novelists in January, is gradually becoming better known in the U.S. He is said to be working on a satire of what's wrong with America, which is a sure bet for attention on these shores. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
The New York Times Book Review

"[O''Hagan''s] books, the products of a patient intelligence, reveal a preoccupation with the enigma that underlies media frenzy: why do some things seem to last forever while others fade away?

— Ruth Franklin

Library Journal
Born into a family of Italian immigrants living on Bute, an island off the coast of Scotland, 13-year-old Maria Tambini has an amazing singing voice. After she triumphs at a talent show in London, she quickly attains fame singing the Palladium and eventually Las Vegas. But Maria has more than fame to contend with: she never knew her father, her mother is preoccupied with running the family's chip shop, and her boyfriend, Giovanni, has a roving eye. In addition, Uncle Alfredo and Grandma Lucca have a few secrets of their own revolving around the detention of Italians at the beginning of World War II. O'Hagan (Our Fathers) traces the rise and fall of this young star, showing how her meteoric career robbed her of her adolescence. While the story is interesting, it never rises to the heights Maria herself attains, and the mystery of Grandma Lucca's past seems unconnected to the main plot. An optional purchase. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/03.]-Josh Cohen, Mid-Hudson Lib. Syst., Poughkeepsie, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The rise and near fall of a young Italian-Scottish singing sensation-a fictional composite of Shirley Temple, Liza Minelli, and Brittany Spears, among others. Maria Tambini grows up on the isolated Scottish Island of Bute, raised by her unmarried mother. In 1979, Maria is a typical 12-year-old who loves candy and is devoted to her best friend Kalpana, daughter of the local Indian doctor. But Maria's incredible singing voice sets her apart. After her uncle Alfredo arranges for a talent scout to hear her sing, Maria is off to London to live with her new manager and appear as an undefeatable contestant on Opportunity Knocks, hosted by an aging song-and-dance man who recognizes Maria's talent and warns her about its power. It's hard to decide just how much even Maria herself hungers for celebrity once her ambitious manager divides her from her family and sets up an exhausting appearance schedule. While Maria is the central subject, for much of the story she remains a mystery seen primarily through the eyes of the various people in her life. Many of these come more vibrantly to life than Maria herself, in particular her mother and grandmother, whose tortured histories and failures shadow Maria. Scottish journalist and novelist O'Hagan (Our Fathers, 1999, etc.) strongly suggests that celebrity robs the individual of personality-as he shows in the sad, dwindling correspondence between Maria and Kalpana as Kalpana grows into an educated, well-rounded young woman and Maria's life narrows the more famous she becomes. She makes no friends but is always ready to please her elders and her public. Gradually, the desire to please turns Maria into an anorexic/bulimic who's hospitalized periodically forexhaustion. Stalked by a fan who, a bit heavy-handedly, represents Maria's public, she eventually finds happiness with a man who knew and cared for her as a boy on Bute before she was a star. Haunting and rewarding as an intimate family chronicle and journalistic take on the entertainment industry, based, we're told, "on the life story of a famous singer."
he New York Times Book Review - Ruth Franklin

"[O'Hagan's] books, the products of a patient intelligence, reveal a preoccupation with the enigma that underlies media frenzy: why do some things seem to last forever while others fade away?
From the Publisher


"A remarkable first novel . . . richly written and highly evocative."--Newsday

"O'Hagan seems capable of accomplishing just about anything he puts his mind to."--San Francisco Chronicle

"Lyrical, poetic, and as intense as a reverie."--The Boston Globe

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

Business was slack, so the pubs closed early and the ferry came in for the night. A brown suitcase was left standing on the pier; it stood there for hours and nobody came for it and nobody complained. It was out all night, and in the morning somebody took it along to Lost Property.

The sky was pink above the school and at eight o'clock the high tide arrived and later the promenade was quiet except for the barking of a dog. From out in the bay you could see lights coming on in the windows of Rothesay, the main town on the Isle of Bute. Inside the rooms there were shadows moving and the shadows were blue from the televisions. It had been a rough winter. First the swimming baths were closed down and then a fire destroyed the railway station at Wemyss Bay. In January, the winds got up to seventy miles per hour, interrupting ferry services to the islands, and then Rothesay's assistant harbourmaster died, and then Mr McGettigan the butcher died. Two elderly men in blue blazers were standing along from the harbour talking about these and other matters, one man smoking a pipe and the other a rollup, leaning against the sea-railing, the water lapping on the pebbles beneath them, the gulls overhead.

'Good chips depends on getting a hold of the best tatties,' one said. 'It's the tatties that make the difference. They used to have them all the time. Nowadays, the chip shops are buying in rubbish tatties that should never have been planted in the first place.'

'Aye,' said the other. 'You need Ayrshires or Maris Pipers. This lot are using spuds you wouldn't feed to the pigs.'

'And the state of the lard...'

'Aye, the lard. Thick wi' crumbs and decrepit wi' use. Terrible mess. I wouldny go near their chips, no, I wouldny thank you for them.'

'Lard. You wouldny feed it to the pigs.'

'A good poke a chips, Wully. They wouldny know them if they came up and took a bite oot their arse.'

'Oh aye. Don't get me started. The fish they're using...'


'They're lettin the fish lie half the week. You need to put a fish straight into the fryer-fresh as you like, nae bother.'

'That's right.'

'A good bit of fish for your tea, Wully. Oh aye. There's plenty of them oot there swimming aboot.'

'Well, good luck to them. The cafés will sell a fair few fish suppers come the morra morn. The world and its neighbour'll be oot for the Jubilee the morra.'

'Right enough. I dare say there'll be drink.'

'Oh, there'll be drink all right.'

They paused a moment.

'They were few and far between,' said the first man, 'but I'll tell you, Wully, the best chips ever seen on this island was during the war.' The men fell quiet at that, they looked over the water, and a dog came past barking and chasing seagulls along the promenade. Not for a long time had an evening on the island been so warm and so still.

MARIA TAMBINI lived at 120 Victoria Street. The family café and chip shop was downstairs, its front window filled with giant boxes of chocolates covered in reproduction Renoirs; also, here and there in the window, on satin platforms, were piles of rock that said 'Rothesay'. No matter where you broke it, that's what it said inside: 'Rothesay'. Her mother spread Maria's hair on the pillow and combed it one last time before closing the window to keep out the night. Just a minute before, she had been sitting on the edge of the bed, a silver spoon glinting in her hand, as she fed Maria from a tin of Ambrosia Creamed Rice.

'There,' Rosa said. 'Go to sleep now. Nothing will happen.'

'Tomorrow,' said the girl. Mrs Tambini straightened the edge of the Continental quilt and wiped the mirror with a yellow duster.

'It will all be great,' she said, thinking of things she still had to do. 'Try to keep your head out the quilt, it's nicer for your face.'

Maria closed her eyes. She had never known her father, and his name was never mentioned in the house, but she knew he lived somewhere in America. Sometimes, in the moments just before falling asleep, she would imagine his smiling face under the sun. All her life he remained just that: a picture in her head that appeared in the dark before sleep.

Her mother went from the room and stood for a while at the top of the stairs. Through the open window in the bathroom she could hear Frances Bone, the woman who lived at the top of the next stairwell over, listening to the shipping forecast. Mrs Bone listened to the forecast every night and often in the day too, if she caught it. Standing there, Rosa admitted to herself that it was not so annoying as she often made out: she actually liked the sound of the words coming from the radio-'Forties, Cromarty, southeast, veering south or southwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6. Rain then showers, moderate or good'-and after Maria was asleep she stood there and listened.

People were laughing down in the shop and Rosa wished someone would go and bring that dog inside. She caught the look of the Firth of Clyde through the glass over the front door. For a second the sea and the distant lights were for Rosa alone. She remembered she needed Hoover bags, and passing over the last stairs she thought of an old song belonging to her father. She remembered her father most clearly when she thought of those old Italian songs he sang, and at the same time, without much fuss or grief, she thought of him coughing blood in the hours before he died.

Giovanni was slapping fish in a tray of batter and then laying them in the fryer. He caught himself in the silver top and immediately thought about his hair; it had always been the way with Giovanni: several times an hour he would go into the backshop and take a comb through his black hair. When he smiled and showed his good teeth, the women at the tables would look up and in that moment some would consider whether they hated or pitied their husbands. Giovanni rattled a basket of chips in the fryer and went through the back with a sort of swagger.

Rosa was scouring the top of the freezer with pink detergent paste. She looked over her shoulder as Giovanni came through, and she tutted. 'This place is pure black so it is,' she said, scrubbing now in circles, her head down, the paste going under her fingernails. 'I work myself to the bone in here to keep this place clean and nobody else seems to bother their arse. It's bloody manky so it is. Why people don't clean after theirselves I don't know.'

She paused. Mention of the efforts she made in life always caused tears to come into her eyes.

'All we need now is a visit from the men, that would just suit you all fine to sit there and for the men to come in and see all this. Hell slap it into you, I say. I try my best and I just get it all thrown back at me. There's no a bugger gives a shite. I'd be as well talking to the wall. If the men come and shut down this café for dirt then hell slap it into you. I could run a mile so I could. I could just put on my coat and run a mile.'

Giovanni moved the peelings from the big sink and ran the cold water over his hands. When he'd dried them he went to put his hand on Rosa's shoulder but she pulled away. 'See what I mean,' she said, picking up the dish-towel. 'Everything's just left lying about for me to pick up.' But when Giovanni turned to go back into the shop she was shaking as she stood at the sink and she put her arm behind her and stopped him. She turned and buried her head in his chest and he sighed. 'Come on Rosa,' he said. 'You're just tired. There's that much on your mind.'

Rosa cried so often and so predictably that no one really noticed she was crying. Her eyes were always red. People seldom asked what was wrong or if they could help; she was the type, they said, who would cry at the drop of a hat. For all the years they'd known her she had been in a state of moderate distress. She cried eating her dinner and running a bath. She cried watching television. She cried at her work and even in her sleep.

When Giovanni leant back, Rosa pressed the dish-towel against her eyes in a familiar way, then put her mouth on his chin and let her lips settle and breathed with her mouth open and ran her tongue along the bristles. Then she drew her bleachy fingers down his jawline and suddenly dug her nails into him. A line of blood ran from his chin onto his white coat. He flinched a little, made no noise, but in his eyes, staring down, anger had taken him miles away. 'Rosa,' he said, lifting the towel and wiping his chin, 'I am fucking tired in here. I'm so tired of this, even if you're not. I don't know what the fuck's the matter with you.'

Just in from a meeting of the Scottish Friendly Assurance Society at the Glenburn Hotel, some customers were waiting for suppers at one of the tables. Giovanni went back and began lifting fish out the fryer and organising plates; he juggled a tub of salt and a lemonade-bottle full of vinegar. Meanwhile Rosa came through and took the duster from her pocket and climbed on a chair to clean the trays that held the cigarettes. After that she got a damp cloth and did the sweetie jars. She was quite composed and seemed quickly to lose herself in the wiping and cleaning.

There was laughter at the tables as the customers ate their fish suppers and pie suppers, their single black puddings, half-pizzas with a pickled onion. George Samson, the oldest man on the island, who drove a turquoise three-wheeler car, sat at one of the tables reading a story from The Buteman. He occasionally shook his head and licked his thumb. '"Although it might seem rather early in the season,"' he read, '"a swarm of bees invaded a house in Castle Street, Rothesay, at the weekend and the police had to be called in to deal with it. A swarm-whether the same or another one-was seen over Castle Street on Tuesday afternoon and appeared to come to rest at the gable walls of Messrs Bonaccorsi and Humphrey's Store Lane building, formerly the De Luxe Cinema."'

George Samson put down the paper and took a dud lighter to his roll-up. Giovanni smiled over. 'They say you'll be lighting the bonfire for the Jubilee tomorrow, George.'

'Aye,' said George, coming up to the counter to pay for his tea, 'the Marquis of Bute is otherwise detained-did you hear that, detained-it seems, at a very posh do in the grounds of Holyrood Palace.' He bowed his head as if the matter was now clear. 'So I suppose you'd better move your arse and give me a box of Swan Vestas,' he said.

Copyright © Andrew O'Hagan, 2003

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

ANDREW O'HAGAN was born in Glasgow, Scotland. His previous novels have been awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the E. M. Forster Award.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >