Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Perfect Stranger, by Danielle Steel (1981)

I've never been in love, but I'm not the least bit averse to the idea. Not for myself, of course. At 51, that flat-bottomed skiff has set sail. But I've seen couples clearly in love and it warms my heart. Romantic love is a rare and precious thing and I wish those who've found it all the joy and blessings I can muster. I'm also not averse to reading romance fiction. Some of it, such as McCullough's The Ladies of Missalonghi, is not only a good story but well written.

Having heard so much about the famous romance author Danielle Steel, I decided to seek out her work at my local used book store. When I saw this novel for a nickel in the bargain bin, my heart grabbed a jump rope and skipped all the way down the block, singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady, figuratively of course.

Granted, I've read only a handful of romance novels so far, but Penny Jordan's Marriage Without Love is decent, A Perfect Choice by Laura Parker, which I read years ago, is certainly serviceable, and, as I say, McCullough's Ladies is a treat.

Steel's story itself is not deplorable. In fact, I'm sure it would make for a decent television feature on the Lifetime channel, if it hasn't been made into one already. But the writing is amateurish. For one, everything is described in excess, sometimes with amusing results. The following lines, while repetitive, are from different scenes.
... the rivers of tears pouring silently down her face.
Alex looked as though an earthquake had struck him, right between the eyes.
'What is it, Raphraella?' His voice was so gentle that it brought tears to her eyes.
... as two steady rivers of tears flowed into the pillow ...
... her eyes still pouring tears down her face.
Equally disappointing is paragraph structure. While it's true I favor avoiding the 'he said, she said' attribution when it's obvious who's speaking (some fine writers achieve this by grouping what is said in the same paragraph with what that person is doing or thinking), Steel's method, in contrast, is a mess. She not only avoids using the 'he said, she said' attribution, she combines one character's actions and reactions with another character's lines. This made for some confusing conversations. I'll spare you examples.

Some of the writing was simply strange or counterintuitive.
... they clung together that way for what seemed a very long time.
To whom precisely did this clinging seem 'a very long time'? This couple loves one another. Therefore, shouldn't any length of time spent together seem all too brief? It's a time honored tradition for we mortals to regret how soon good times end, regardless their duration. Conversely, a short interval that feels long is normally reserved for moments of displeasure or discomfort. 'The few days Margaret was away felt to John like a lifetime.' Or 'They tortured Bob for only eight minutes, but to Bob it felt like hours.'

Here the protagonist Raphaella is taking a walk along the grounds of her parent's estate. Her surroundings include palm trees and flower gardens and fountains and even bird-shaped hedges. “... but Raphaella saw none of it as she walked along thinking of Alex [italics mine]. All she could think of was the letter Kay had sent her father and that she would not give in to his [her father’s] threats.”

Raphaella's father is not Alex; Kay is not Alex. If 'all [Raphaella] could think of' is the letter Kay sent to her father and that she wouldn't give in to her father's threats, why are we first told she was 'thinking of Alex'?

At one point Raphaella's mother tells her: “'But to play with people who … want more from you, who have hopes for something you can't give, is a cruelty, Raphaella. More than that it's irresponsible.'”

Is Raphaella's mother suggesting that irresponsibility is worse than cruelty? Shouldn't this be the other way round? I'm reminded of an ad for a Law & Order episode in which the plot was summarized as follows: 'A convicted murderer is suspected of racism.' As if his racist views are at least as important as his having committed murder.

Steel reminds me of a school girl scribbling in her dream journal. Everything is written gushingly. The tone is sophomoric, not to mention vague and hyperbolic. I can imagine Steel substituting the dots over her lower case i's for balloon hearts. To constantly claim this was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen or that she'd never felt as wonderful in all her life as she did at that very moment or that this was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for her was not only tedious but unnecessary. And woe to the reader who makes a drinking game out of Steel's frequent uses of the modifiers really and very.

Tragically, despite her popularity, Steel simply can't properly convey what better writers can. A novel shouldn't be a summary of a couple in love but potentially a series of memorable moments for the reader, a romance experienced vicariously, a chance to evoke in the reader the feelings Steel claims her characters are experiencing. But the following excerpt serves as a troubling example of what to expect:
They sat there for a while, talking, looking into the fire, talking about themselves, about each other, about what had happened to them, and what they had felt, and then suddenly they were talking about other things, about people, about things that had amused them, about funny moments, as though for six months they had stored it all.
Setting aside the indistinct redundancies, the above paragraph reads more like a general suggestion about a scene rather than an actual account or instance, where an immediate scene would be far more effective. A moment of warm exchanges, some mild humor perhaps, a recurring habit one of them recognizes and teases the other one about, etc. Even a bit of dialogue, if handled well, could better define the particulars of their affection for one another, which in turn would help the reader sympathize with the couple. Instead, we're subjected to a rather spongy summary of unnamed things, unidentified people, and alleged amusements. The reader is outside looking in, and, I might add, the view is through a rather opaque plate of glass.

I realize that vivid, evocative, descriptive writing is more challenging than bland, imprecise drivel, but it isn't as if I'm bemoaning one’s genetics. Good writing can be taught; precision with language can be acquired. And these skills, unlike popularity or earnings, separate the pro from the amateur. I know I shouldn't be disappointed great writers remain obscure while hacks laugh all the way to the bank, but I can't help it. Puppy love makes me cringe. Conversely, when it comes to good writing, I'm a love sick fool. Two out of five stars. R

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