FROM Pamela to Peyton Place, there have been books that everyone reads. Sometimes they titillate while professing to teach, and sometimes they make no pretense at all. They do not win literary prizes, serious readers ignore them, and they are as popular as potato chips.
For a few hours, the reader as heroine is faced with insurmountable difficulties and surmounts them. On days when the garage has announced they think they've found the difficulty and it can be fixed by sticking $400 under the car's hood, and the nursery school teacher warns that your child is exhibiting a fearful tendency toward something called "parallel play," how nice it is to settle in for a cozy round of kidnapping, alcoholism and infidelity. What comfort we take in the wicked ways of others.
English poet and critic Edmund Gosse once divided popular fiction into "the novel of the tea-table," where ordinary events are made interesting by the people who experience them, and the "Skeleton-in- the-Cupboard," where ordinary characters are made interesting by extraordinary events. The first, which examines character, turns us inward; the second pushes us out of ourselves and, judging by sales, a great number of readers seem to prefer those books which let them take a walk outside.
Janet Dailey's books have sold over 100 million copies; there are 50 million of Danielle Steel's novels in print, and, for the last four years, she has had three books listed simultaneously on the national best seller list (not the same three, however). Neither author will teach you much about human nature, but, my word, the events you will have been party to!
In Family Album, Faye Price, golden girl of the silver screen, and her husband Ward Thayer produce not only movies but five children whose existence gives the author a chance to serve up an entire menu of 20th-century problems. Death in Vietnam, drugs and group sex in the Haight-Ashbury, homosexuality -- wham, wham, wham. And if the pace should flag, there is financial ruin and infidelity to get it skipping again. Danielle Steel is a very bad writer: "He lay her across the white fox-covered bed. He peeled her clothes from her, devouring her flesh, murmuring to her in whispers, as her fingers gently disentangled him from his clothes, and moments later, they lay side by side, naked, enveloped in the rich white fur, and then suddenly they were engulfed in each other's bodies, and neither of them thought of resisting or being sensible anymore."
Or this: "He had hurt her, deserted her, cheated on her, betrayed her. And yet, deep inside, she still knew that he was her friend, that he loed her, and she him, and that she always would."
BUT STEEL's readers learn that her heroines -- beautiful, brilliant, rich and good -- are no more immune to problems than a waitress dishing up hash browns in a rural diner. Faye Price is famous, and her husband buys her "two floor-length sable coats in slightly different shades and styles, a fabulous silver fox, a red fox, a silver raccoon . . . and more jewelry than she thought she could wear in a lifetime," but her daughter hates her and her husband responds to pressure by collapsing. Man is weak and woman is strong: it is a frequent theme in popular fiction, and on those bad days when the reader, rummaging through the book rack in the supermarket for something to get her through the evening, suspects that her husband is the world's biggest jerk, how nice to read that golden girl Faye Price's husband is an even bigger one.
Popular fiction offers two solutions to the "I Married a Jerk" problem, and in Family Album Steel uses the less popular one. Stand by your man.
Much more often, the solution is the one adopted by Janet Dailey in The Pride of Hannah Wade: replace him with that handsome, adoring swain who just happens to be hanging about. Dailey, though not a great writer, is better than Steel, and her plot is more interesting.
It is 1876 and Hannah Wade, wife of a major in the U.S. Army, is kidnapped by a band of Apaches. The beautiful and fragile Hannah, her husband's prize possession, faces that fate which is worse than death. Except that Hannah realistically decides that death is worse and chooses to live a life of abuse and humiliation. She toughens herself throughout a captivity that sees her first a slave and then wife to an Apache warrior. Finally she is rescued and returned to her husband.
Is he glad to see her? Does he wrap her in his arms and smooth away that hurtful time?
No, he does not. In true jerk fashion he broods about the fact that his wife has been -- no matter how unwillingly -- in the possession of another man.
Although Dailey does not romanticize the Indians, she respects their culture and has bothered to learn enough about it to make it seem real. While Hannah is learning to gather and bake mescal cactus and treat the hide of a freshly-killed deer, back at the post her husband alternates frenzied searches for his missing wife with equally frenzied bouts of sex with Cimmy Lee Hooker, a black woman with "an earthy beauty, full pouting lips and knowing eyes that looked at a man and knew what he wanted."
But Janet Dailey assures her readers that even a woman who is married to a weak and spoiled man can go through the most terrible things -- kidnapping, rape, torture -- and still come out feeling all right. (And looking all right, as Hannah does on the day of her rescue: "The sunlight fired the hidden red tones in her dark hair. It was smoothed back from her face, a headband circling it, and coiled into two vertical loops at the base of her neck. The style suited her, at once sleek and contained, yet primitive in its simplicity . . . The split sides of the buckskin skirt showed the sun-browned skin of her knees and thighs, lean- muscled and firm."
And the reader is also assured that the reward for all this suffering will be a new and better man, this time one who is absolutely guaranteed to be a hero. CAPTION: Picture, Danielle Steel. Copyright (c) By Marcey Malcy