In spite of plodding style and shallow characterization, Jeffrey Archer's "The Prodigal Daughter" possesses narrative drive--a classy way of saying it's a page-turner. It is, however, much easier to put down than Archer's earlier best-seller "Kane and Abel," to which it is the sequel.
Like brand-name motels that supply reliably clean, dull rooms with plenty of extra toilet paper, "The Prodigal Daughter" provides a familiar product. In fact, predictability is the book's major virtue. Consider this scene: As self-made hotel mogul Abel Rosnovski looks down at his infant daughter, Florentyna, he vows:
"Not for her the dirt and deprivation of his childhood or the humiliation of arriving on the Eastern Seaboard of America as an immigrant with little more than a few valueless Russian rubles sewn into the jacket of an only suit." Form can be defined as expectation fulfilled. You knew, didn't you, that Abel would have only one suit?
The expectations Archer depends on are formed by fairy tales and movies. Readers of "Kane and Abel" will recall that, in best fairy-tale tradition, Abel turned out to be the lost son of a baron. Freshly arrived in America, Abel was plucked from the obscurity of waiting on tables in the Plaza Hotel Oak Room to the executive suite of a hotel chain. A wealthy benefactor, a Texan who has watched Abel "serving guests solicitously for a week," recognized our hero's potential despite his low position. (Belief in the myth of the wealthy benefactor is the most peculiarly American fairy tale, probably explaining why so many of us persist in being inordinately nice to rich people.) Shortly thereafter the Texan jumps from the window of his hotel's presidential suite, leaving Abel a debt-plagued hotel empire and forcing him to beg from Ivy Leaguer William Kane, a banker who seems to have the soul of a cash register. Thus begins the family feud that forces Florentyna to turn on her father. Which scion of which Eastern banking family do you imagine young Florentyna is likely to fall for?
The one question that isn't entirely predictable is whether Florentyna will fulfill her pledge to her father--overcoming the terrible burdens of being a woman, Polish and a millionairess--to become president of the United States.
As early as the age of 6, Florentyna is a lot like Margaret Thatcher--first-grade president and iron-willed upholder of the Brownie code. Her qualities of leadership are encouraged by a Cambridge-educated (Archer, and Thatcher, went to Oxford) governess who combines the best qualities of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jeeves.
After Florentyna is called a "stupid Polack" by a nursery schoolmate, the governess lectures Papa Rosnovski: "You should have explained the Americans' deep-seated prejudice against the Poles, a prejudice that in my opinion is every bit as reprehensible as the English attitude toward the Irish, and only a few steps away from the Nazis' barbaric behavior towards the Jews." Naturally, no one has ever told millionaire Rosnovski he was wrong about anything (he doesn't point out the number of Poles in the U.S. Congress or numerous statues of Kosciusko) and he admires the Englishwoman's gumption.
With her governess' tutoring in Polish history, Greek and Latin, Florentyna wins a scholarship to Radcliffe. Only her marriage to the young Kane (whose last name will fill up a small and thus distinctly un-Polish space on the ballot) and the resulting temporary disinheritance set her back at all.
"If only America was governed the way you run your hotels, we wouldn't be in the trouble we're in now," a typical admirer tells Florentyna after she has reconciled with her father and succeeded him as head of the Baron Group. She gives in then to Mayor Daley's plea that she run for Congress from her native Chicago. (Daley was impressed when Time ranked Florentyna 1968's third-most-admired woman, after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Margaret Mead.)
You can begin to see what 1995 is likely to bring for Florentyna. Funnily enough, the page-turning slows down when her campaign for president begins. No wonder, with passages like this summation of the New Hampshire primary: Florentyna "grew to love the classical New England mill towns, the crustiness of the Granite State's farmers and the stark beauty of its winter landscape."
No place ever comes alive. San Francisco, to which the newlywed Kanes are banished, is never more than Nob Hill. Chicago is "The Windy City." Of Washington we learn that Congresswoman Kane "could always go directly to the chamber on the little subway if the weather was inclement."
The author's straining effort to give the impression of having information is even more evident in the use of famous names. In 1984, for example, Jack Kemp is governor of New York. Matina Horner may be relieved to read she is still president of Radcliffe, but Giscard d'Estaing, Willy Brandt and Edward Heath may or may not be unreservedly pleased that Florentyna attends their funerals.
Even readers who love a plain old page-turner demand a touch of original thinking and some useful information (about anything at all: Japanese religion, Cornish tin mining, the Mafia), along with their dose of narrative drive. Most readers will learn almost nothing from "The Prodigal Daughter," not even helpful hints on running a hotel chain or a presidential campaign. Further, there is less real sense of daily life, of how people behave or how a place looks in "The Prodigal Daughter" than in an average issue of People magazine.
A concluding scene shows us Vice President Florentyna Kane saving Pakistan from the Russians while filling in for a philandering chief executive. Florentyna drills the craven secretary of state (who said too hastily that he was in charge) by saying he'd "still be looking for excuses to avoid any confrontation even when the Soviets were marching down Constitution Avenue." Most readers will have a strong sense that they have seen this Situation Room scene before--at the movies. Some readers will find this comforting; many will be bored.