The cliches and melodrama of talk shows and pulp romance overwhelm the well-paced beginning of this didactic debut. Martha Ward, an attractive 28-year-old divorcee living in L.A., is obsessed with her looks (and miserable as a result), so she quits her job as a topless waitress to work for the mysterious Dr. Hamilton. The job is strange: for $300 a night, three nights a week, she must talk about beauty and what it means to her. And she must do so covered head-to-toe in a navy blue hooded sweatsuit. Under this protective disguise, Martha feels secure enough to analyze her relationships with the men in her past--her callous father, abusive stepfather, priggish ex-husband--all of whom have contributed to her rock-bottom self-esteem. Dr. Hamilton, who for some reason shares Martha's ambivalence toward beauty, is only too glad to listen to her melancholy tales. Although Wagman portrays Martha's troubled emotional life with affecting sympathy, she fails to offer readers an interesting take on Martha's physical vanity and shame: after a series of nightly conversations, Martha and Dr. Hamilton get no further than the pious, unconvincing conclusion that ""what makes [people] so... enjoyable and fascinating has nothing to do with how [they] look."" Descriptions of Reuben, Martha's fickle Adonis of a lover, are equally trite, but at least this serviceable beach-blanket prose has the painful ring of sincerity. (Aug.) FYI: Wagman, an L.A.-based screenwriter, has received the Mary Pickford Award and the Silver Eagle Award from the Chicago Film Festival.