BOOK REVIEW : A Convenient and Enjoyable Plot : AN INCONVENIENT WOMAN by Dominick Dunne Crown Publishers $19.95, 416 pages

Unless you've spend the last decade in a Tibetan lamasery, you won't need a key to the characters in Dominick Dunne's newest saga of low life in high places. What you will need is a book light that allows you to read while a significant other sleeps because "An Inconvenient Woman" is not easily put aside, despite a plot so closely based on current history that the ending is not only predictable but inevitable.

As he has proven in prior novels, Dunne combines a fine satiric touch with considerable depth of field regarding the secret lives of prominent persons. Although his books are a collage of yellowing news clips, unsubstantiated rumor and wild surmise enhanced by a few hard facts, the result manages to be more than the sum of its parts, the seamless finish and high polish achieved by silky prose and meticulous characterizations. If you're sensitive about relishing something so patently commercial and artfully salacious, call it social commentary.

The cement holding the various bits and pieces together is a collection of tapes recorded by Flo March, a voluptuous redhead with creamy skin, a heart of gold, and the checkered background that often goes along with these endowments. Flo is the mistress of Jules Mendelson, a formidable political and social power in Los Angeles and beyond, a man of legendary brilliance, taste, charm, physical size and sexual energy. Though Jules is securely married to the aristocratic Pauline, Flo March fulfills needs far beyond Pauline's impressive gifts. The garden, the parties and the charities are Pauline's domain, the boudoir is Flo's, an arrangement that seems to suit everyone concerned as long as it's left unmentioned.

Flo is a darling, puttering around her charming canyon house, reading Marilyn Monroe biographies, living for 3:45 p.m., when Jules appears for his ritual visit. Lonely as her existence is, it beats waiting on tables in a Hollywood coffee shop, which was the most agreeable part of her life before Jules discovered her. She genuinely loves him, demonstrating her sincerity in word and deed, and he not only returns her passion but confides his most intimate thoughts to her. Although there's no question of his sacrificing his magnificently ordered life to marry Flo, he's at his best when they're together.

In the past, the precariousness of her position had driven Flo to drink, but when we meet her, she's regularly attending AA meetings in one of her Chanel suits, listening patiently to others' confessions but never volunteering any personal information. There she meets Philip Quennell, a young writer newly arrived in Hollywood to work on a film about drug addiction. Philip goes to one of mega-hostess Pauline's glorious dinners, where he not only promptly falls in love with the young widow Camilla Ebury, but also meets the rest of the Mendelsons' inner circle--notably Camilla's uncle Hector Paradiso, a perennial bachelor of impressive lineage and unspeakable morals.

Leaving the enchanted world of Clouds, the Mendelson mansion, Philip goes home with Camilla, and Hector drops in at his usual haunt, the gay bar where he picks up the porno actor who will be accused of his murder, and later, of another murder that touches us more deeply. We've lost no time in descending from the heights of the local social scene to its depths, a pattern that will be repeated throughout the book--up with the Mendelsons, down with the gangsters blackmailing Jules into laundering money; up (but not so high) with the young lovers Philip and Camilla, down with the repulsive producer who has hired Philip to write his movie; down further with Cyril Rathbone, the effete, vengeful society columnist for Mulholland magazine. As the highs and lows proceed, the distance between them shrinks until virtually everyone ends up on the same squalid plateau.

The exception is Flo, who always tells the truth and never pretends to be anything but Jules Mendelson's adoring mistress; Flo only wants what Jules has promised her. When that proves to be more than Pauline can bear to give up, Flo reluctantly throws in her lot with Rathbone, who promises to turn her memoirs into a blockbuster somewhat resembling this one. Just like Marilyn Monroe, with whom she identifies so completely, Flo March suddenly becomes an inconvenience to be deactivated before she can do any serious damage.

In a brief epilogue, we learn the fabulous Mendelson mansion has been torn down by the new owners, who considered only the greenhouses and kennels worth saving, a value judgment if ever there was one.

Next: Carolyn See reviews "One True Thing" by Greg Matthews.

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