THESE NOVELS tell the story of a young woman's growth: her first affair, the slow discovery of her own special talents, her entry into business, her turbulent attempt to reconcile love and work, triumph in her chosen profession, and finally, reunification with that never forgotten first love. All deal with the aristocracy. Each is also a textbook, explaining in detail the secrets of the wonderful ocean liners of decades ago, the making of cashmere garments, or the botany of the Caribbean and how its flora can be transformed into perfume. In short, all are of a genre.
And all give off the aroma of being contrived: the publishers, authors seem to be trying hard to guess what "romance" means in today's market. If these books are a guide, a subway rider wanting to forget her drab surrounding wants a heroine who not only lusts for men, but for power as well. The women here want true love, but not at the expense of giving up a chance to be "chairperson" of the board. They show refreshingly unambivalent willingness to struggle for power, dish out revenge, take control of the situation without a second thought as to whether the person they tromp over is male or female.
Of the three books, The Normandie Affair is the most skillfully handled. Elizabeth Villars has chosen as her narrator an effete dandy, Anson Sherwood. His love for the great ship Normandie is as real as the love of the protagonists, Maxwell Ballenger and Emily Atherton, for each other. Emily is off to cover the Spanish Civil War, and establish herself as the pre-eminent journalist of our time. Max is traveling on the Normandie in connection with his budding airplane business (which will put great liners like the Normandie out of business). Inevitably, they fall in love, knowing that they will be separated by the wars to come. (And by marital complications, etc.) But while they go about their predictable business, Anson describes in rich detail his love of the ship. Intentionally or not, the lovers fade into the background, and the reader becomes fascinated by the great floating hotel. This reviewer looked out the tiny window of his airplane, and wished he was calmly cruising to Europe while exploring the twisting corridors, the elaborate engine room, being served by docile experienced crew members who live for the ship, dining in a world of "hammered glass walls and gleaming bas-relief under the warm glow of coffered gilt" ceilings. Emily and Max get together eventually, but only after Emily has made herself one of America's most important radio correspondents.
Nicola Thorne's Cashmere is also good reading. Scotland has often proved to be fertile ground for a woman's saga, and Thorne makes the best of it. The barren hills seem the right place for a domineering, conservative father, a young woman determined to get out from under her family, for feuding dynasties to fight it out and re- unite after generations. The business here, of course, is a family company involved in the making of cashmere garments. While the world is changing, in Scotland the company goes on as before, serving up the equivalent of the sturdy clothes one finds in an L.L. Bean catalogue. Of course, young Margaret Dunbar will defy her father's wishes and travel to London to set all this straight. She will become a model, learn the intricacies of fashion, return to the family, displace both her father and her ineffective brother, and make Dunbar's the equivalent of Burberry's. And, naturally, she will make a disastrous marriage to a French nobleman, who will die in World War II, and she will be reunited with her true love. All this is predictable from page one. But there is fire in this book. The heroine is taking on formidable challenges: Scottish morals, her family, control of the company. She is likeable because she never ducks a fight -- no matter what the situation, the reader knows she is going to press forward even though it is clear that the next step is going to cause our heroine severe trouble. Predictable? Yes. But also dashing, quick moving, and fun.
All these books are pretentious in a sense: People are forever clicking Cartier lighters, shaking hands with lords and ladies, exiting from Rolls-Royces or Bentleys, being dressed by Bill Blass. But Golden Hill goes the farthest. Shirley Lord's publishers, in their promotional material, have little to say about the book itself. They are more concerned with the fact that their author has been a senior editor at Harper's Bazaar, vice president of Helena Rubenstein, and director of special projects for Vogue. The promotion reflects Golden Hill's weaknesses. The story is overly flamboyant, and puffed up. Heroine Margaret Pollard simply has too many goodies at the beginning, and thus not enough obstacles to overcome. Yes, it's true that she builds a cosmetics empire, but it comes across as merely a sideline. The crucial plot developments concern a wonderful Caribbean estate "Golden Hill" and who will eventually becomes its owner. But with all the money floating around in the book, one can't help but wonder why the characters don't simply build several "Golden Hills" and be done with it. Of the three books, it was the only one where it's necessary to outline a genealogy in order to keep the characters straight. This is not because it is more complicated in plot or themes. Just at about page 300 everyone begins to sound alike. Yet, even with these limitations, Golden Hill is not bad. With a real clunker, one wouldn't bother to attempt to sort the characters out. Interestingly, Golden Hill is the most traditional of the three. Margaret's success as a businesswomen is in large part due to the assistance of kind male friends. Success is thrust upon her. Fantasy seems more rich when the woman achieves it on her own and is able to thumb her nose at the rest of the world.