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Book Review: Is Nicole Riche's new novel a Jackie Susann redux?

Special to the Los Angeles Times

So, OK, the first problem with Nicole Richie's second novel, "Priceless," is that you took, or mistook, actually, its opening chapters -- setting up the tale of an American princess recently returned from Parisian exile to her handsome, devoted Wall Street king of a father -- as a promise of an update on Jacqueline Susann's "Once Is Not Enough."

So, OK, this isn't the book's problem. This is your problem. And even so, would it have been fair to expect Richie to concoct something as bananas as Susann's Electra-complex-to-the-max soap? (And honestly, it wouldn't have been advised. One ritualistic rape scene in a Polish nunnery is quite enough.)

As it turns out, the act of judging, or misjudging, actually, is what concerns Richie here. See, our American princess, name of Charlotte Williams, is, underneath all the vintage-couture labels and bravado, just a girl standing in front of the world, asking to be loved. Ah, but it's not easy for the world to love her back -- not after her father is revealed to be a new-and-improved version of Bernie Madoff, a swindler just the same albeit with a greater capacity for guilt and a more sympathetic back story (the poor guy, readers are told, felt so bad after Charlotte's beautiful mother died that he just didn't care anymore!).

With Charlotte's father jailed, Charlotte becomes the public face of the scandal, and as such, a target. Literally. (The bloodthirsty Susann herself might have had to admire the sheer number of times Charlotte gets punched, spat at and otherwise attacked.) Cut off from her family, fake friends and bank account, Charlotte does what every shallow rich kid does -- she heads to New Orleans, camps out on the couch at her former nanny's and takes a job washing dishes.

So, OK, the second problem with Richie's novel is that its "Simple Life" detour doesn't ring true minus the artificial constraints of, well, a certain reality show whence its author came. Then again, Richie's heroine, as written, wouldn't ring true if she'd signed up for a character-building TV-show challenge. Charlotte wants only to be herself and find herself and, oh, yes, captivate with a singing voice straight out of Norah Jones. Or "Glitter." Or something or someone equally implausible.

So, OK, the third problem with "Priceless" is that it's a little bit bananas, which, as you'll recall from our "Once Is Not Enough" discussion, doesn't have to be a problem. Richie's pointedly wittier than Susann, who produced laughs of the unintended variety (not that there's anything wrong with that -- entertainment's entertainment). She's more optimistic than Susann too, although that's not to her story's benefit. After some brief, ghoulish fun at the Grove -- no, Richie can't stay away from her Los Angeles home forever -- everything gets tied up neatly enough for a Danielle Steel tale, which may well have been the point.

The suspicion here is that Richie can be much more than a conventional drama queen. She's got the ingredients. Now to get those bananas really cooking.

A Novel
Nicole Richie
Atria: 294 pp., $24.99

Ryan is the author of "Former Child Stars: The Story of America's Least Wanted."

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