THAT JUDITH KRANTZ is a Francophile was apparent in her two previous novels, Scruples and Princess Daisy. But nothing in either of those brassy, over-rouged best sellers prepared me for the special warmth, like a Provencal sun, that lights up her newest book, Mistral's Daughter. The disjointed episodes, the self-uglifying narcissism, the brittle mercantilism and sublimely false touches of the earlier pair are gone, and what you have instead is an almost unbeatable popular confection. Imagine Scarlett O'Hara painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, and that should give you an idea of the vivid and poten charms of Mistral's trio of heroines, the Lunel women: mother Maggy, daughter Teddy, granddaughter Fauve.
Portraits of these ladies are, in fact, significant plot elements, for the mistral of the title is not just the mysterious wind that blows up out of nowhere in southern France but a painter, Julien Mistral, who is lover to two of the Lunels and father of the third. The spell of Provence -- its rosy amber sunsets, the air perfumed with lavande and thym, the timeless villages -- is often symbolized by the famous mistral, and the character Mistral is pretty gusty, too. The Lunels, two of whom in different eras are his mistresses, are themselves of Provencal origin, but the countryside remains more to him than any woman. And like a force of nature, Mistral, with his Picasso-like appetities and singleminded devotion to his art, is heedless of the harm the dark side of his genius can wreak.
Naturally, however, not all of the author's now-familiar touches have disappeared. Krantz, a former fashion editor, is still a glamour junkie, a label lover and addict of superlatives. Les femmes Lunel are all three peerless, gorgeous, stunning knockouts: Maggy was an artist's model in Paris before becoming a fashion mannequin in New York and later the head of Manhattan's most powerful modeling agency. But not just any artist's model: "Pascin painted her with roses in her lap, an icon of sensual authority; Chagall painted her as a bride flying in wonder through a purple sky; Picasso painted her over and over again in his monumental, neoclassic style, and she became the preferred odalisque of Matisse." According to the Krantz history of art, Leonardo and Rembrandt would, no doubt, have painted Maggy Lunel too, if they could have. Teddy, on the other hand, was only "the greatest fashion model of all time" before she returned to her mother's native France and met Julien Mistral.
The result of this union, Fauve -- "a little wild beast" -- is proudly illegitimate, as were, actually, both her maman and grandmMere Three generations of beautiful bastards, their out-of-wedlock births add one of the little notes of tension that keep their lives from being too Bloomingdale's-catalogue. Any melodrama worth its marmalade might have one love-child: what are one or two more? Besides, it helps thematically and with structural symmetry. And if one isn't looking consciously for theme or structure in a romantic potboiler, it's still worth pointing out that those that work best employ such techniques. Edna Ferber, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Mazo de la Roche: theirs is the tradition to which Judith Krantz, with the publication of Mistral's Daughter, now belongs.
It's all too easy to heap scrn on fuchsia prose like "at last, relieved of her baggage of rigid chastity, she lay next to him and was glad and grateful" or "the look of a gentleman trained to knightly swaggering, that he had worn so haughtily in his youth, had not changed with years of ever-growing fame, greater mastery. . . . Mistral had the face of a chieftain." But who would want France's greatest painter described like Rabbit Angstrom? And, in fact, Krantz has calmed down considerably; it's as if a lot of the stylistic toxins in her body have been flushed out by the Provencal heat. Plus, her knowledge of and affection for the area of southern France known as the Vaucluse are both wide-ranging and sure. For every urban excess amidst the chic-freaks of Paris and New York, there's simple pleasure to be gotten from her true-to-life depictions of such unchanging rural rituals as the village dance or the game of boules.
Like Ferber, Keyes, et al., before her, Krantz favors strong men and strong but nonetheless yielding women, capable of being swept, very literally, off their feet. Besides illegitimacy, this formula demands other scandals, as well -- here, Krantz draws upon the less sunny side of France--anti-Semitism and collaboration during World War II. Her interest in the history of the Jews of Provence, all too real and all too tragic, gives an unexpected dimension to the surface froth of bohemian revels and fashion layouts. The formula, of course, also demands a villain or two, and there's an icy, scheming bitch -- Mistral's actual wife -- to keep things moving along. But it is Krantz's own warmth, which she manages to convey for the first time, that, for me, makes Mistral's Daughter a vast improvement over the earlier two books. One doesn't ask the Judith Krantzes of this world to be earth mothers, after all, but it is nice when they let their hair down and smile without grimacing. CAPTION: Picture, Judith Krantz Copyright ;$ 1982 Harry Langdon Photography