A Washington insider's view of things


THE LADIES' LUNCH. By Patricia O'Brien. Simon & Schuster. 284 pages. $22.

THIS IS a fast-paced read about five Washington women whose friendship is fed by their regular lunch meetings in one of the capital's upper-rung restaurants, Galileo.

Sara Marino is a well-known judge, who has been nominated to the Supreme Court. She seems a shoo-in. Washington Post investigative reorter, Maggie Stedman, has left her job after destroying someone's life with an expose and is now struggling to keep herself and her son afloat financially. A tabloid biography of her well-known friends would mean financial security. While Faith Paige is central to the story, she never makes the scene. This beautiful White House press secretary is found drowned in the Potomac. Was it suicide? Leona Maccoby spends her life as a caterer to Washington society and sipping on the bottle. She puts up with the psychological abuse of her wealthy, power-broker husband, Justin. Carol Lundeen, a Maryland congresswoman, pays the price for putting her career before her husband and children.

These five successful women have been a support group for each other for years. When Faith dies, the women look to each other and themselves for resolutions. Could her friends have prevented her death? Faith's life was more complicated than they realized. It seems Faith made enemies in the oval office where her close association with youthful President Dick Sayles is not well received by conniving White House Chief of Staff Jack Patton. For his own dark reasons, Jack Patton also tries to block Sara Marino's Supreme Court nomination. He will stop at nothing and his alliance with Justin eventually affects all five women.

Author Patricia O'Brien, who also wrote the successful "The Candidate's Wife," is a former journalist. She served as press secretary to Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential campaign and is considered a Washington insider.

When a novel such as this is placed in real time and place, naturally there's lots of speculation as to whether the characters -- key players in Washington -- give us behind-the-scene looks at real people. As any author worth her/his salt will tell you, the characters are composites of several people. But several appear to be almost carbon copies of familiar personalities. President Dick Sayles: "Eight years ago, he was just an average . . . lawyer . . . his hair had an unruly character to it that gave him the casual look of an adolescent boy." The president's wife is a "tall, gaunt woman [who had] an understated strength to her that was . . ......TC driving some reporters crazy . . . She didn't quite fit the accepted models painstakingly constructed for the wife of an American president."

The circumstances of Faith's apparent suicide eerily resembles the real-life tragedy of the late While House general counsel Vincent Foster. Jack Patton has some of the strong, managerial traits of Clinton campaign manager, James Carville, and so on. There is no doubt, however, that throughout there is a strong indictment of the press and Washington's fraternity of power brokers.

While each of the women is skillfully drawn with a fine point, the characters are somewhat flat. But they are all original and contribute an individual push to the progress of the story. Equally interesting is the authentic background on which Ms. O'Brien plays out her plot. The behind-the-scenes conniving and cutthroat tactics are believable. In fact, "60 Minutes" anchor, Lesley Stahl, said of Ms. O'Brien's last book: "[She knows] of what she writes. She's been there." Scary praise indeed, when you consider the story's details.

In the end we find four women allied against men and their power structure. Perhaps that's the way it is in the old boys' network in the nation's capital. Washington's top rung, according to Ms. O'Brien, still equals the world of men. Finally, each of the friends comes to a catharsis, supported by their loyalty, and there are satisfactory, if sometimes a bit soap opera-like solutions.

Barbara Samson Mills writes from Monkton.

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