May 25, 1987 12:00 PM

by Erica Jong

When someone describes an Erica Jong novel, it always sounds as if it has wonderful possibilities. She comes up with original ideas. What she then produces, however, can often be a mess, and Serenissima is an extreme case in point. The main character and narrator is beautiful movie star Jessica Pruitt, who is in Venice to serve as a judge at a film festival. She is planning, after the festival is over, to star as Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, in a production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by a neurotic Swede. Instead, the festival ends in a riot, and Jessica falls ill, only to be transported magically to an earlier time where she meets and falls madly in love with William Shakespeare. Since the author of Fear of Flying is in charge of this fantasy, there are a couple of orgies and other sex scenes that have their kinky moments. There ought to be something nice one can say about a novel in which gossip columnist Liz Smith, PEOPLE and Shakespeare are all part of the same literary set. But Jong’s idea of Elizabethan dialogue, laced at every opportunity with quotes and misquotes from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, is embarrassingly inept. Then, too, Jessica spends the whole last half of the book racing around the Italian countryside with a nun’s infant son in tow, worrying that Will might not make it back to England to write his plays. In Jong’s books the trashiest, trendiest plots are cluttered with a literary pretentiousness that most writers avoid as soon as they get a few years away from their English lit. professors. (Houghton Mifflin, $17.95)

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