A Hollywood Life - From the Inside Out

When Carrie Fisher's third novel, ``Delusions of Grandma'' (following ``Postcards from the Edge'' and ``Surrender the Pink'') recently hit the streets, much of Hollywood was anxiously waiting to see who was in it and how well they fared - or so say the chroniclers of the entertainment industry.

At the end of her roman a clef, Fisher, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, and former wife of musician Paul Simon, pays tribute to her famous friends, including Meryl Streep, David Geffen, Penny Marshall, Meg Ryan, and Anjelica Huston, some of whom surely see shadows of themselves in this book.

Fisher is often called the ``ultimate Hollywood insider,'' and that's part of what makes her book so much fun. Clearly a person who thrives on language, she is a skillful writer - funny, clever, and at times profound.

``Delusions of Grandma'' is the story of Cora, a Los Angeles ``script doctor'' who is called in at the last minute to rewrite screenplays. As much as she loves writing and the money and minor fame that go with it, Cora loves the art of conversation more. Nothing is ever resolved in her mind until she has hashed it over with what she calls her committee - her ``short list of long-term friends.''

Into this jumble of a Hollywood life comes earnest, devoted Ray, whose only discernible flaw as far as Cora can see is that he's a lawyer. ``She was drawn to the cool day of Ray's demeanor, a shady haven from her greenhouse effect.''

In one of the more poignant sections of the book, William, a friend of Cora's who is dying of AIDS, comes to California to stay with her. Refreshingly, Fisher focuses not so much on the death, but rather on what caring for the dying does for the living. ``Maybe, after they'd clung so closely to him, he'd left them nearer to each other, left them loving.''

After William's death, Cora and Ray lose sight of the roles they are supposed to play, confirming Cora's doubts about her ability to love a good man as much as she thinks she should. Shortly after the relationship dissolves, Cora finds herself pregnant and facing the daunting prospect of single motherhood.

``Delusions of Grandma'' is interspersed with letters from Cora to her unborn daughter, whom she dubs ``Esme.'' ``I hope to write you all sorts of pithy, succinct advice to help you move through the world easily,'' Cora writes, ``not without a care in the world, but a care so far away in the world, perhaps, that it has another area and dress code.''

The story concludes with an all-important journey: Cora, her eccentric mother Viv, and her equally quirky friend Bud, kidnap Viv's ailing father from a nursing home to take him by train back to his Texas hometown. Though the plot becomes less believable, the journey encapsulates the big life questions and musings that make the rest of the book a good read: love, loss, birth, friendship, and family.

The book's title refers to Viv, who likes to spin fanciful tales of the tragedy sure to befall her daughter. Since Fisher admires a play on words, the title is also likely a takeoff of the phrase, ``delusions of grandeur.'' After all, this is a book about Hollywood parties, social climbers, and a heroine with a ``big loud life.'' More important, it's about the ultimate insider who often feels like an outsider trying to find her way home.

* Suzanne L. MacLachlan is on the Monitor staff.

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