Ever since Salieri knocked off Mozart last year in "Amadeus," mediocrities everywhere have been getting a little more respect. So perhaps we should not be overly critical of a book that meets all the criteria for ordinariness. After all, if "Hold the Dream" is not very good as entertainment, it's not very bad either.
Readapting the old maxim "You can never be too rich or too thin," Barbara Taylor Bradford's new novel features characters as wealthy as the moguls, though less flashy, and an essential content as willowy as Twiggy in the old days. Readers will love it, although not as much as its prequel, "A Woman of Substance," which stayed on the best-seller list for months and inspired a top-rated TV mini-series.
"If at first you do succeed, try it again" is a rule of thumb in the entertainment industry, and no one will be surprised to learn that "Hold the Dream's" heroine, Paula Fairley, granddaughter of the Woman of Substance, is a clone of her grandmother. Aside from their complexions, the only difference between Paula and Emma Harte is their provenance. However, it's a big difference.
Emma, almost 80 now and very much alive through most of the novel, had risen out of adversity in Yorkshire, working her way up from poverty to become "one of the world's greatest merchant princes." Paula shares Emma's "aura of presence, and . . . the old lady's steely toughness as well as that uncommon widow's peak, those sharp eyes that penetrated with a keen intelligence." But she starts out rich, elegant and protected, inexperienced in "the hard world where other women had to live and fight and hold on to their sanity somehow, despite the burdens they had to carry, the punishment certain kinds of men made them endure."
One of these chaps is handsome, selfish Jim Fairley, her husband, who does not understand her, or worse yet, even try to. As their relationship deteriorates, Paula turns to her career as manager of Emma's multimillion-dollar Harte stores. (Emma also holds huge interests in publishing, hotel and oil syndicates.)
Paula, being steely, has no trouble directing and expanding her business empire, but it takes all her mettle to keep things running smoothly as head of the vast Harte-Fairley-O'Neill relationship that Emma has handed over as well. Possible murder must be hushed up (though indications are that it will resurface in a future novel), family arguments are mediated, rebellions are ingeniously crushed.
But personal matters are less tractable than business ones. Even as Jim and Paula's twins (looking suspiciously like the protagonists of the novel after next) are baptized, Paula's favorite childhood companion -- handsome, unselfish Shane O'Neill -- unwittingly reveals to Emma his "unadulterated love and aching yearning" for Paula.
Paula's discovery of this pleasing state of affairs leads to the immediate consummation of their passion and problems of guilt after Jim's accidental death. However, a fortuitous attempted rape by handsome, lustful New York banker Ross Nelson acts therapeutically to free Paula from her unseemly self-reproach, and she and Shane are reunited on the rippling English moors until their next public appearance.
"Hold the Dream" (possibly an unfortunate title for Americans whose slang uses "hold" to mean "delay") evokes the worst and the best of its predecessor. The first 250 pages are spent introducing some three dozen characters, many, from the first book, through Emma's reminiscences. (Memory, in fact, plays a considerable part in the story since some of the biggest events are swallowed up between chapters and coughed up later in someone's recollections.) Earlier shortfalls in style and originality have not been repaired -- cliche's still abound, and the author's tendency not to let action or dialogue speak for itself adds unnecessary length.
As in "A Woman of Substance," high-flying quotations, invoking Queen Elizabeth and even St. John of the Cross, introduce each section, and fine-sounding philosophies are attributed to Emma and her favorites, which, if they were adhered to, would preclude both novels. But, without the contrast of Emma's poverty and desperate drive, Paula's story wants timbre. Holding a dream is not as exciting as fulfilling it.
Still, with all its economy of substance and inventiveness, "Hold the Dream" will keep regular fans on the read, and even quibblers like me will find themselves anxious to discover how the perils of Paula pan out. Just as well. As that new subspecies in fiction, the romantic heroine in her business mode, Emma and Paula and their relatives may come back to daunt us in future versions of this heir-conditioned saga.