Danielle Steel, Thurston House (Dell, 1983)
[originally posted 14Feb2002]
Over the past quarter-century or so, Danielle Steel has sold more novels than there are people in America. Fifty-three books, with sales (at present, according to Steel’s website) of more than four hundred sixty-three million. She’s one of a handful of novelists who have not had a single book go out-of-print in decades. Remember those old Slim Whitman late-night TV ads talking about how he’d sold more albums than Elvis and The Beatles? Well, Danielle Steel really HAS. She’s the Slim Whitman of the book business. So what is it, I asked myself for years, that makes people read Danielle Steel so obsessively? What is it about her books that makes them so all-fired popular? I must have known I would eventually want to know the answer, because some years back I picked up a worn-out dog-eared copy of Thurston House. And thus my education in mass-market romance begins.
To start with, every bad thing I’ve ever heard about Danielle Steel novels is absolutely the case. Whoever does her editing needs to be boiled in oil. The grammar is atrocious. Ellipses scurry about the pages like ants on a rich man’s corpse. Sentences like “The sun sank slowly into the hills framing the lush green splendor of the Napa Valley.” are endemic. (That’s the opening sentence of this five-hundred-page epic.) The book itself is so overwritten as to make a Presidential speech sound spare and to the point. Keeping my cynicism in check, I decided that couldn’t be the reason for hundreds of millions of books sold, and that her fans were reading in spite of, not because of, these things. And so I dug a bit deeper.
Hypothesis number two: sex. Romance novels have sex, right? (Well, they contain sex. Though most used bookstore owners will swear up and down they have no idea how so many of them got on the shelves, so…) Everyone’s familiar with the cliché of the Fabio-fronted bodice ripper. Maybe so, but not in Danielle Steel’s novels. Five hundred pages and two sex scenes that are less explicit than anything to be found in Victorian erotica. Ever read Victorian erotica? Nuns read Victorian erotica when they want to take their minds off lustful thoughts. So, okay, it’s not the explicit sexual content. Deeper we go.
Could it be, erm, plot? This one centers (as should be obvious from the title) around Thurston House, a mansion built in San Francisco after the Civil War by Jeremiah Thurston. He builds it for his young Georgia wife, Camille. It turns out to be the only thing about being married to Jeremiah that Camille really likes, so she ends up absconding to France with a penniless Count and leaving Jeremiah with the house and a daughter, Sabrina. Sabrina is actually the main character of the book (one remembers, wistfully, Mervyn Peake’s words about wanting to write an epic novel wherein the main character is only a few months old after “many thousands of pages,” and wonders when Steel read those words), and grows up to be that rarest of things, a career woman at the turn of the century. Complications, etc. As far as plots go, it’s actually not all that bad. The book may be overwritten, but Steel does know how to keep the pages turning, and while everything that happens therein is predictable, she at least keeps the reader’s ire in check by making sure it doesn’t become too predictable until a few pages before whatever large event is coming up happens. While Americans have given up steak tartare for Big Macs, even the most jaded McFreak needs a Whopper once in a while. There has to be something more than that.
Characters? Oh, please. Jeremiah Thurston falls in love with three different women in the book’s first twenty-five pages (well, okay, he’s been seeing one of them for six years, but he falls in love with the other two within five minutes of meeting them, and he meets them within a week of one another. I mean, come on). Even if everyone else in the novel had been drawn with the precision of the characters in, say, a Don DeLillo novel, and perfect consistency, Jeremiah’s antics at the beginning would have been enough to cause aspersions to be cast. Well, let me clarify. It’s not just Jeremiah’s antics, it’s the motives that Steel ascribes to them. I’ve read more than enough good books where a randy main character goes rutting with multiple women in relatively few pages. Those books, though, don’t offer the hope that said randy main character will drop everything and marry whichever one says “yes” first. Life just doesn’t work that way. To be fair, Steel lets us know she realizes this. Camille (remember her?) says of her father that he has a mistress in New Orleans, and everyone, including her mother, knows this. She mentions this while asking Jeremiah if he’s going to be that way. He, of course, says no, and sticks to it despite shabby treatment from Camille. And, of course, everyone we meet, especially in the supporting roles, is so beautiful it hurts to look at them.
It was at about this point in my ruminations (ed. note: originally typed there: “ruinations.” Indeed.) that it dawned on me what it is that Danielle Steel has that so deeply affects tens of millions of fans and causes them to buy hundreds of millions of novels. A few paragraphs back, I mentioned that good old Victorian erotica. You know the type. Men get simultaneously scandalized and titillated by the flash of a bare ankle, and the closest anyone gets to sex is that time-honored sport of “struggling with her corset.” While no one would accuse Ms. Steel of being Victorian in her writing style (thankfully), the morality in her books has a distinct air of nineteenth-century Queen about it. We never see anyone having sex unless they’re (a) married or (b) getting married. Sex between the unmarried is only hinted at in the most oblique terms. Those who have been married before who are generally good folk and ripe to get married again are either widowed/widowers or were those who were left, not those who did the leaving. (This is an hypothesis on my part; Jeremiah is the only one in this book with a main part who gets left, and he’s too married to his work to find a new wife.) Those who do the leaving are vile creatures worthy of contempt by the reader; there’s never a situation in which someone could have a good reason for leaving a spouse. Men are perfectly beastly to women at times, and rape is even hinted at, but always with an eye towards plot advancement. No one in the book has a character that is any shade of grey; everyone is either good or evil. (Parties can switch sides, if necessary to advance plot. Besides, every romance novel needs a pair who are originally at each other’s throats before falling madly in love.) And, most assuredly (and, one would think, most offensively to female readers) is that, while the heroine may prove herself to be a self-sufficient and capable career woman in a male-dominated society over the objections of all around her, surmounting insurmountable odds in order to do so, the career woman is only a career woman as long as is necessary. The purpose of the woman in the romance novel is to marry and beget children.
Once you’ve got your head around the particular form of escapism that takes 1900-era morals into account, everything falls into place. Steel is read for the same reasons other romance authors are, but her formula contains a particular set of rules that are stricter than most. I started out wanting to learn why so many people read Danielle Steel. I seem to have done so. The idea that so many millions of people could wholeheartedly embrace such strictures as actual ideals for the way the world should be is cause for intense, painful despair. That’s not the fault of the book itself, however. It does what it sets out to do. It creates its own fantasy world (consistent, one assumes, with that of the other fifty-two mega-bestsellers that have flowed from Ms. Steel’s pen), populates it, and gives the reader a story within it that conforms to its rules. It is safe and predictable. It would be better were some uppity editor to curtail Steel’s overwhelming use of ellipses and adverbs, but must be given some grudging respect for its readability. Still, as much as I try not to fault the book itself for its moral structure, I can’t help letting some of that creep in. I‘ve tried Danielle Steel now; I’ll stick with Barbara Michaels, Dean “Deanna Dwyer” Koontz, Janis Flores, and other more liberated romance novelists. * ½