By Judith Krantz
Crown. 502 pp. $21.95
I read most of "Dazzle" in one sitting. I had to. I wasn't sure I could face picking it up again.
It's not so much that Judith Krantz's latest is bad -- although it is, by any standard except that of the bestseller list -- but because the thing is so unremittingly, heart-sinkingly dull. Nothing surprising happens in the entire novel; it is merely a string of romance narrative cliches tied loosely together by sex scenes every 50 or 60 pages. It's a book written for people so desperate they simply can't wait for the miniseries.
At 29 Jazz Kilkullen is a beautiful, world-famous photographer who works out of a studio called Dazzle. (Dazzle, we learn, was originally an "empty building built in the style of the Piazza San Marco," which is a remarkable architectural trick in itself.) Jazz is also the daughter of Mike Kilkullen, whose Spanish land-grant ranch is the biggest undeveloped piece of California still around. Before you can say wicked stepsisters, enter Valentina and Fernanda, who actually want their cowpoke dad to sell his good earth so that they can satisfy, respectively, their need for wealth and an endless supply of virile young men.
But wait. At Mike Kilkullen's big fiesta a clumsy young stranger with freckles actually spills chili on Jazz's antique gown. Can he possibly be the fabulously wealthy investment broker Casey Nelson, who wants nothing more than to spend a year as Cow Boss on the Rancho Kilkullen?
As the novel proceeds, we are treated to a series of flashbacks that provide thumbnail sketches of Jazz's mother, the sensual Swedish movie legend Sylvie Norberg; of Jazz's early love affair with photojournalist Tony Gabriel (cast as the heavy, though he does nothing worse than prefer his work to marriage); and of Mike's icy, venomous first wife, Lydia, who carries on an affair with the governor of California because the two share a peculiar spiritual affinity. He also likes to think of her as a strong young sailor.
Now, every one of these characters is so flat you can practically see daylight through them. They are, after all, just hangers upon which Krantz lovingly arranges her designer clothes. In fact, "Dazzle" periodically reads like the voice-over at a fashion show. Here tough, leathery Mike Kilkullen recalls meeting his first wife: "He could still remember how entrancing Lydia had been in her full-skirted, pale blue taffeta dress with its matching jacket; so maddeningly proper with her little white gloves and her satin pumps." Somehow I don't think Gary Cooper would have noticed these things in quite this way.
Of course, clothes are to modern romance novels what weapons are to high-tech thrillers, but Krantz ladles in so many brand names, media celebrities and camera secrets that "Dazzle" alternately reads like a catalogue from Saks, the last six issues of People or Vanity Fair, and a Time-Life guide to fashion photography. Desperate for verisimilitude, she regularly introduces actual museum curators, restaurateurs, actors -- not to mention most of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. Even the widow of Henry Fonda gets a walk-on. You'll be glad to know that her legs still look good.
Dropping names is bad enough; explaining them is condescending and vulgar. Jazz doesn't simply say Karsh, she says "Karsh of Ottawa"; when a character reminds her of John Gielgud or Ralph Richardson, she adds, "two consummate actors," in case we'd forgotten. What American embassy is she near most often? asks daddy Kilkullen at one point of his wandering daughter. " 'That would be Paris,' Jazz said thoughtfully. 'Photojournalism has always been centered in Paris, ever since the great days of Paris-Match, and it still is, oddly enough.' " Love that "thoughtfully" -- a real deep thinker, our Jazz -- though "oddly enough" is pretty irresistible too.
The high point of this kind of insider trading occurs when Jazz and Casey go to Spago's restaurant -- the 21 of California, we are thoughtfully told -- and meet, oddly enough, none other than Mistral's daughter and Princess Daisy, the heroines of previous Krantz novels.
Not surprisingly, "Dazzle" really makes the leap to banality and embarrassment when describing sex. Characters give themselves up "to the rhythm that would bring them both to the fullness of their passion." To sexy Sylvie the young Mike Kilkullen "was like a huge untamed animal she had hunted on a savage shore and brought to ground." Jazz's breasts, we are thoughtfully informed, are "utterly young, yet heavy and opulent." Also "ripe." Yet, oddly enough, they "were so firm they rode high on her chest." Casey, to be evenhanded about these matters, possesses "a reckless mouth capable of the most ardent, full-hearted, brimming kisses."
Now where were we with the plot? Oh, yes. After 300 pages of sexual and clothes encounters, the Rancho Kilkullen actually falls into the hands of the wicked New York financier and the two bad sisters, Regan and Goneril. No, I mean, Fernanda and Valentina. Things do look bleak -- until our heroes discover, absolutely and entirely by accident, an old, old album that had fallen behind a shelf full of books and apparently lain undisturbed for more than a century. Could it possibly contain the clue to a crumbling Spanish land covenant that might save the farm? Gee, what do you think?
In fact, "Dazzle" closes with an utterly unprepared change of what I am obliged to call character by some of its major figures. And as in any fairy tale, even one with costumes by Calvin Klein and decor by presumably famous New York interior decorators, this one ends with the good rewarded, the evil thwarted and our beautiful heroine happily submitting to her masterful husband to be.
Why do people bother with a book like this? Isn't there enough drivel on television? I realize that Krantz sells because she's a brand name, a purveyor of simple-minded fantasy and wish-fulfillment. Trixie Belden for the middle-aged. Soap opera you can take on the subway. But really. Without being positively ungrammatical, "Dazzle" possesses no discernible merit as a novel; the pornography is strictly boilerplate; and the characters are such cartoons that they make Bertie Wooster and Lois Lane seem positively complex.
Enough. Sometimes reviewers lament that good trees have been felled to produce a book. In this case, I even feel bad about the ink and glue.
The reviewer is a writer and editor for Book World.