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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
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Three things separate Maria Tambini from the other inhabitants of Rothesay on the island of Bute: her family are Italian; she is the child of a single mother (with depression); and she has, from a very young age, an amazingly powerful and good singing voice, and a complete lack of inhibition about performing. Her uncle Alfredo, hoping to get Maria away from a dead-end life on Bute and her mother's increasingly miserable influence, sends a demo tape of Maria to 'Opportunity Knocks' (this being the heyday of 1970s television talent shows), and an impressed talent scout is soon up on Bute watching Maria perform. Maria goes down to London, wins 'Opportunity Knocks' seven times and launches into stardom, performing on television, in variety shows, at charity events and with popular singers in the USA and the UK and making recordings. But child (or early adolescent) stardom means that she never has enough time to concentrate on her studies at the Italia Conti school or make any real plans for the future, and the narcissistic celebrity world leads her first to turn her back on old friends, and then, increasingly, to starve herself in the hope that she can become ever more beautiful. Soon, Maria is careering fast towards a very dangerous type of anorexia. Salvation appears to come when she meets an old friend from Bute, now based in London - but can his care save her from herself, her family's dark legacy of depression and from the sinister fan who has become obsessed with her?

I bought this (and other O'Hagan novels) in a bid to read more male contemporary authors but it sat on my shelf for a while before I got round to reading it. I wish I hadn't left it so long! 'Personality' is a stunning book in so many ways. It's loosely modelled on the story of the real Italian-Scots child star Lena Zavaroni - but O'Hagan includes much that's purely imagined, such as the young literature-loving Michael who becomes Maria's boyfriend (is he modelled on O'Hagan himself at all?!), Maria's family background, which includes a sinister event related to the Arandora Star tragedy during World War II, when a ship of Italian immigrants was torpedoed, causing multiple deaths, and the Indian family who Maria is close to as a child, so it doesn't merely feel like the literary equivalent of a biopic. O'Hagan writes sensitively and without ghoulishness about anorexia and bulimia, and is very clever in showing both how fame makes Maria at least for some years rather obnoxious (the letters from her increasingly worried Scots-Indian friend Kalpana and Maria's cold responses are chilling) and destroys her, so that she comes to feel that her 'personality' is a totally invented thing'. His descriptive language - about the Isle of Bute, about Maria and Michael's intimacy and the places they visit, even about mundane things such as the inside of a cafe or a station lavatory - is richly poetic and vividd. I loved the way that, rather than tell Maria's story just from her point of view, he gave us multiple voices: Hughie Green the host of 'Opportunity Knocks' (who he managed to even make sympathetic in a funny way), Maria's unhappy mother Rosa, loyal Michael, the working-class lad who found literature led him to an English degree and then to charity work, quiet and mysterious Alfredo, Rosa's secretive very Italian grandmama Lucia - and others. This worked well, creating a whole host of stories rather than just focussing on Maria's bleak destiny. The story is unendingly interesting, and O'Hagan's thoughts on the attractions and the dangers of the celebrity world are astute. I particularly liked the way that he worked Maria's Italian heritage into the story, particularly through Lucia and the account of her love affair with the opera singer.

There were the odd moments where I felt that the narrative very slightly faltered. It would have been perhaps interesting to get a feeling of what precipitated Maria into anorexia (the narrative slightly jumps from Maria as a confident early adolescent to Maria as a fasting performer) - though I suppose this may be clear from 'undercurrents' in the sequence of letters between Maria and her friend Kalpana? It might also have been interesting to hear more from Rosa about why she finally made the choice she had. And the subplot with the stalker, though very effective, felt very slightly rushed in some aspects - it was never made clear, for example, why Maria and Michael didn't go to the police about him. However, I can see why this element was introduced into the plot, and it did lead to a very memorable final scene, which both shocked but, in the end, left the reader with a strong sense of hope.

A very masterful and thoughtful book, stunningly written. I'm looking forward to reading more novels by Andrew O'Hagan.
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on 9 May 2016
Just awful: whimsy dressed up as a folk tale of poor-but-happy folk getting on with their broken lives, in the chip shop, and letting the darling buds of May blow their troubles away.
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on 3 July 2012
I really enjoyed this book. At the centre of the story is a child singer propelled into stardom via a talent show and her decline into mental illness. Her decline is as a result of the pressures of fame and the politics and secrets of her dysfunctional family. Her family's problems are themselves understood in the context of bigger issues such as war and immigration. This is as much a saga of the Scots-Italian family across generations as it is the focal character of Maria. O"Hagan writes beautifully and really captures the 70s zeitgeist. The characters are well-rounded and credible. He adopts multiple viewpoints (third person, a number of first person accounts) plus some script and epistolary techniques. However, this is neither confusing nor pretentious.
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on 8 January 2015
I am very angry with the list of who Andrew thanked at the back of Personality. He thanks Hughie Green, Opportunity Knocks. But Hughie Green died 3rd May 1997. This book would not have been published in 2004 if it wasn't for my friend Late singing star Lena Zavaroni. But Andrew O'Hagan has failed to thank any of Lena's family, or her managers. Apart from that with Lena's name changed to Maria Tambini I really enjoyed reading Personality. Maria seems to have a bit wild side to her in the way she speaks and some of the things she does. Naturally a character has to be made larger than life or the character becomes not intersting to read about. Lena was not like that she was very quietly spoken. We wrote to each other and we was always chatting and laughing together. I must say though that Personality is one the best novels that I have read in a long time. Although I am upset that Andrew hasn't thanked any one connected to Lena Zavaron,I will be reading more Andrew's work. I highly recommend Personality. Review by ireadnovels.wordpress.com
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on 9 July 2004
Andrew O'Hagan's 'Personality' is a fine, beautifully-written novel, which firmly cements the author's place among the best of young British writers. Among other things, it's a meditation on the meaning and nature of identities (national, local, sexual, personal) and celebrity, themes the author addresses through the biography of Maria Tambini, a Scots-Italian child star of the 1970s and 1980s clearly (and for me, a bit troublingly) modelled on the real-life Lena Zavaroni. O'Hagan convincingly evokes a variety of social and familial settings -- he must have done wonders for the Isle of Bute tourist trade -- and makes us care for his characters, some of whom (such as Hughie Green, Dean Martin, Princess Diana,Les Dawson)are taken from 'real' life. He has a great ear for Scottish vernacular speech, and he uses this ability to draw the reader into scenes of apparent sentimentality (a Scottish trait, to be sure), but where pain, violence (of one kind or another) and horror are never far away. At times, his depiction of the tribulations of the Tambini women is so painful, you have to put the book down and catch your breath. Otherwise, the book is unputdownable. The reviewer who found it boring would be better off, perhaps, sticking to Tom Clancy.
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on 14 April 2004
When I pickd up this book I had no idea how engrossing it would become.
The story of the main character Maria being spotted at a local talent show and being whisked off in to the world of showbiz was very realistic and an emotional ride. For a man to write so emphaticaly about a young girl struggling with anorexia was amazing and not at all maudlin.
There is no doubt that this story was based on the life of Lena Zavaroni in all but name and outcome which made it all the more compulsive.
A brilliant book.
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on 6 April 2003
This book is extraordinary. On the surface it tells the story of a young girl, a child star not a million miles away from the late Lena Zavaroni, and I must confess this is why I bought the book. I'm of the generation that used to sit and watch Opportunity Knocks and I think all of us were fascinated, and later shocked, by what happened to Lena.
There's a lot of Lena in this book: we meet a young girl called Maria Tambini, who could, superficially, be her double. What O'Hagan does, though, is surround her with an invented and brilliantly realised family, set of circumstances, and past, with such amazing attention to detail and emotional acuity that very quickly into the book, you find yourself thinking that this isn't 'about' Lena Zavaroni at all -- it's about three generations of women and their secrets and lies, it's about love and redemption, and it's about O'Hagan's stunning talent for ventriloquy: the book is told is different voices, all of which are separate but add up to a cohesive and devastating whole.
I read his previous, Booker-shortlisted novel Our Fathers when it came out a few years ago and although I was impressed by the writing, the book was too dense and demoralising for me. This is different. The writing is still dazzling, there isn't one duff sentence, but it's also a proper page-turner and much more accessible. I think it's remarkable that a man could write about women like this. This book should come with one of those money-back guarantee stickers.
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on 11 June 2006
At first I found this novel difficult to focus on - the start simply didn't interest me. However, by the start of part two, I was hooked. The writing was top quality and the variety of techniques kept the book interesting. As I read about the lives of the different characters, I found myself desperate to know more about them. The ending was filled with hope after the horrific events of Maria's life during her period of fame, which was great because I grew to love the characters within the novel and part of me would have been gravely disappointed had they not of resolved even a few of their issues.

Overall, great book. Just be patient and keep at it if, like me, you find the beginning unappealing - it does get better!
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on 13 May 2003
This is an extraordinary book. Much more accessible and more of a page-turner than O'Hagan's previous, Booker-listed Our Fathers, it tells the stories of three generations of women. I bought it thinking it was 'about' a child star with an eating disorder, but this is only partly right -- really, it's about the big universal things, like love, faith and family. The bits about fame, which are brilliant and convincingly chilling, are almost incidental. Parts of Personality are tragic, parts of it are highly comic, and all of it is exquisitely written. This may sound mad, but if I hadn't seen pictures of O'Hagan, I'd think he was a woman with a male pen-name: it seems amazing that a man can get under the skin of three very different women this extent. I devoured (if that's the right word) this book, and it will stay with me for a long time. My favourite book over the past year or so was The Corrections -- this is even better. Highly recommended.
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on 18 April 2015
Andrew O Hagan became known to me after I watched a a tv series by him on Robert Burns. By accident I discovered a novel of his in our village library. So I was keen to read more and was delighted to find him on Kindle. Personalty is a compelling account of a young girl who becomes famous after being "discovered" on a talent show on tv at the tender age of thirteen and the way in which she is mismanaged from then onward with tragic consequencies. The story is partly set on the Island of Bute, which is just a few miles from the neighbouring Island of Arran where I live so it has a special relevance for me.
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