Brenda Janowitz, author of “The Audrey Hepburn Estate,” recreates a...

Brenda Janowitz, author of “The Audrey Hepburn Estate,” recreates a moment from the Audrey Hepburn movie “Sabrina." Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

THE AUDREY HEPBURN ESTATE by Brenda Janowitz (Graydon House, 336 pp., $30)

Syosset novelist Brenda Janowitz has a streak going: Following 2020's "The Grace Kelly Dress" and last year's "The Liz Taylor Ring," she's just published her third novel that revolves around a situation with glamorous connections to a vintage Hollywood movie star. In her latest, "The Audrey Hepburn Estate," the connection runs largely through the 1954 movie "Sabrina," in which Hepburn played the daughter of a chauffeur on a Glen Cove estate who ends up romantically caught between two men. That plot is echoed here.

The estate in Janowitz's new novel is not actually the one where the film was made, but down the street from it. The fictional real estate developer who plans to tear down the existing structures and build a community called "Hepburn" on the property is hoping people won't trouble themselves with that level of detail. As the novel opens, chef and caterer Emma Jansen arrives in Glen Cove to attend a public presentation introducing the plans for the place.

“The Audrey Hepburn Estate” is the latest novel by Syosset’s...

“The Audrey Hepburn Estate” is the latest novel by Syosset’s Brenda Janowitz. Credit: Graydon House

The property is now an overgrown, rundown shambles, but back when Emma grew up on the grounds, it was a gorgeous estate and mansion called Rolling Hills, owned by Felix and Agnes van der Wraak, a Dutch couple who immigrated after World War II.

"Are you a van der Wraak?" asks another audience member when Emma reveals her connection.

"No," says Emma. "My mother was the maid."

Leo L'Unico, who is giving the presentation, also grew up at Rolling Hills as the son of the van den Wraaks' Italian chauffeur. Emma can't believe that Leo wants to tear it all down; he can't believe she's so sentimental about the place. Emma spent her entire childhood madly in love with Henry van den Wraak, the owners' grandson, while Leo was equally head over heels for her. Among the things he plans to tear down is a huge old tree with Henry and Emma's initials carved into the trunk.

Leo and Emma were sitting in that tree the day they saw Fleur, the van den Wraaks' beloved cook, fall to her death from the widow's walk of the mansion. Or was she pushed? Her employer, Felix, was out there with her, and they aren't sure if they saw him trying to save Fleur or push her to the ground.

The sections pivot between "Now" and "Then" to unfold numerous aspects of this story. Leo and Emma believe that Felix van den Wraak is not only a potential murderer, but an unrepentant Nazi — they found Nazi memorabilia in the house when they were teenagers. Felix is still alive, and the truth is still unclear.

In her attempt to stop Leo from demolishing the old house, Emma reconnects with Henry. Though he turns out not to care about what happens to the estate, sparks reignite between him and Emma, and the old love triangle is back in business, with no shortage of hanky-panky in the catering tent.

Those catering tents are Emma's — she's established a career as a top New York event chef, with a close group of employees who are all the family she has left since her mother's death. Janowitz does a wonderful job on the plans for details of Emma's events, particularly one that may not ever occur: Emma has accepted a contract from Leo to cater the groundbreaking ceremony at Hepburn, even though she has also joined forces with the Glen Cove Historical Society to put a stop to his project for good.

As in Janowitz's previous books, "Easter eggs" in every chapter connect the story to the life of Audrey Hepburn, with all the details laid out in an appendix. Hepburn's experiences during the Holocaust, her love of chocolate, scenes from her movies, her secret affair with William Holden, her philanthropy — these and much more are woven into Janowitz's engrossing plot.

Readers who enjoyed Janowitz's early comic novels ("The Dinner Party," for example, was about as much fun as has ever been had with Passover) will notice that the author seems to have gotten a bit less playful. Even the "The Grace Kelly Dress" and "The Liz Taylor Ring" had their madcap moments. The current novel, with murder, Nazism, grief and betrayal all playing major roles in the plot, has more serious ambitions. Fortunately, Janowitz does both things well.

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