Who is this Danielle Steel, empress of the book trade?

ON BOOKS

June 25, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Clearly one of the most successful authors in the 20th century, Danielle Steel writes books that are seldom if ever read by people who write literary reviews. What is she all about?

Just out: "The House on Hope Street" (Delacorte, 231 pages, $19.95). The first paragraph, exactly 90 words, establishes three characters, location, the season, state of weather, an emotional tension, a story dynamic, and three relatively clear but vital personal relationships.

Swiftly, a substantial suspense is at work. It centers on a husband-and-wife lawyer team who have an ideal marriage -- all they have ever yearned for. They are representing Amanda, an abused wife.

That's within the first four pages. That is writerly efficiency.

The sentences are short, active. Most have a single clause, and never more than two. The vocabulary is simple. The narrative vantage is omniscient: The nameless, invisible teller of the tale has the capacity to see all, including inside the minds of all the characters.

"Hope Street" is in San Francisco, where Liz and Jack Sutherland live. They have five adolescent children. The youngest is retarded -- referred to as "special" and "different" -- sweet and dear. The family abides in perfect harmony. No one has any evident political, ideological, intellectual, spiritual or diversionary complexity.

By page 19, we find them on "a peaceful, happy evening, filled with the spirit of Christmas, and Liz and Jack were enjoying the prospect of a holiday and a long weekend."

The tranquility ends abruptly with a phone call from Amanda. Her husband has threatened to kill her. By page 32, he does just that, and then stalks and executes Jack -- and then blows his own head off.

Just for Daddy

On page 69, a few days later, the widow is talking to her children. " 'No one said this was going to be easy,' Liz said with a sigh. 'But this is what life dished out to us for the right now. We have to try and make the best of it. Maybe if we just do it for Daddy, he would have wanted us to be okay. And one day we will be again.' "

This is as deep as it gets, very straightforward and simple -- without a hint of lyricism or poetry.

Liz struggles, holds everything together. The agony of deprivation and the anxiety of an unpredictable future become the fabric of the tale.

Eight months later, the eldest son is dangerously hurt in an accident. The chief of the local trauma unit is Bill Webster -- "the gray at his temples made her want to believe that he knew what he was doing."

He does. The kid comes out of it, brave Mom beside him every minute. So, "it was hard not to admire her," the Good Doctor Webster thinks. "Things had worked out just fine this time." And he is glad. So is she. Love blooms.

The two sons adore Bill, and the three daughters think they hate him. This creates a crisis. Bill is driven away.

And then, of course, the dear little special youngest breaks his arm, hanging a Christmas tree ornament -- the anniversary of it all. And, of course, he and his mother end up in the hospital and -- Hello! -- guess who's there?

Everybody lives, of course, happily ever after.

The book's messages are inescapable: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. It's always darkest before the dawn. Hang in there. The best is yet to come. It's the best of all possible worlds. Have a nice day.

In even light but serious literature, the truth is irony, reality is ambiguous. People evolve, or develop. Sad or happy, the stories generally reveal change, discovery or the resolution of conflict.

In Steel's book, there is none of that -- little or no contemplation, speculation, searching. The characters are all one-dimensional, each defined by a simple, single need. All goods are clearly good. All bads are bad. The only grays are on the heads of people who are busily gaining maturity.

All or nothing

Either the entire novel is so predictable, so formulaic, so obvious, so contrived, so soap-operatic that it is ridiculous. Or -- apparently for millions of readers -- it is moving. Nothing in between. It is chromium-plated saccharin, surgically engineered to produce tears, far simpler than any real life, much less any view of life that is challenging. It's a dream pill, an antidote to reality.

So who is this incomparable merchant of happiness? How does it happen?

Danielle Steel is 52 years old. She was born in New York and at 18 married Claude Eric Lazard, of the French international banking family. She has married at least four other men since breaking from Lazard at 26. Two of those husbands were criminals: One, a former bank-robber, is still in prison for rape; the other was a recidivist narcotics addict. She has borne seven children, one of whom, at 19, died by suicide.

Some published accounts record this as her 71st book -- though it is only her 49th, according to Delacorte, her present publisher, which declares that she has sold 420 million total copies. Publicists say that her average book now sells about 1 million copies in hardcover and 2.5 million in paperback. Reported advances (the book industry is notoriously secretive and often mendacious about numbers) run $10 or $12 million per book.

She is purported to have a personal net worth of between $300 million and $800 million. She has enlisted lawyers to discourage at least one biographer. This winter, she parted from her fifth husband after 17 months of marriage. She is said to be intensely reclusive and genuinely unhappy.

Life is far more complicated than Steel's fiction. Not even success carries any guarantees.

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