Book Review: Happy Birthday
Delacorte Press, 2011
Best-selling author Danielle Steel has very nearly reached 100. Not her age, mind you (the rumors that she rolled bandages with Clara Barton during the Civil War are just that – rumors. Entirely undocumented rumors), but her literary output. In a career spanning thirty years, Steel has written eighty-one mainstream novels, all of which have topped the New York Times bestseller list. Her productivity is equalled only by her profitability – while exact numbers are difficult to come by, it’s entirely likely that a billion copies of her books have been sold since her debut. She holds a slew of publishing world records and is one of the most popular authors who’s ever lived (that ‘one of’ is a hedge only against Betty Neels and Barbara Cartland, and since both those stalwart ladies are dead and Steel is still going strong, even the qualifier may someday soon be unnecessary). Her latest novel, Happy Birthday, is currently comfortably ensconced on the Barnes & Noble and New York Times lists for fiction.
And yet, she’s critically invisible. Her bestselling coeval Stephen King has recently begun marketing himself to a more upscale crowd than that comprising his original audience (he, for instance, wrote an instruction book on the art of writing despite a conspicuous and repeatedly demonstrated innocence of that subject), aspiring to high-culture acceptance before the Grim Reaper lops his metaphorical head off. Steel, for her part, has insistently danced with the one who brought her, turning out book after book – often two a year – along the exact same aesthetic lines she first drew back in the 1980s. King’s ploy has worked; the more pretentious his latest books are, the more likely they are to garner unintentionally hilarious plaudits from otherwise sober review journals. Steel’s books have remained paradoxes, selling millions and millions of copies while drawing virtually no serious mainstream critical attention.
The reason is more complex than it looks. Of course a large part of it is simple old-fashioned sexism: Steel’s stories, plots, and especially dialogue are not one scintilla worse in any way than King’s (and both of them look like Thomas Mann compared to febrile non-punctuators like James Patterson), but she’s a woman and so draws accusations of writing malformed populist fluff.
Those accusations are entirely true – like all the rest of her elite bestseller club (Richard Evans, Nora Roberts, Tom Clancy, King, Jonathan Franzen, etc.) Steel has not the first idea of how to craft powerful, memorable, or even competent prose. Readers coming to her books looking for such things will fall quick victim to tooth-gnashing rage at the thought that someone who could write so poorly can rake in small mountains of money do so. But the point isn’t that she can’t write, or if you’re going to make that point, you’ve got to include all the rent-paying authors who can’t write, and most literary people I know would be uncomfortable with the results of doing that.
No, the point is that Steel has never claimed the upper slopes of Parnassus. Postmodern irony or mordant, ham-handed social commentary … these things don’t interest her, nor should they. Her characters melt into each other’s arms; they stick with each other to the bitter end; their passions explode. She crafts her books in exactly the same spirit moustachioed professionals once crafted ice cream cones: perfect balance, delicious vanilla ingredients, and no healthy whole-grain bran anywhere in sight. Saying there is no artistic depth in a Danielle Steel novel is both easy and irrelevant – no author can be fairly judged on the basis of something she isn’t even trying to do.
What she’s been trying to do for her entire career is clear everything out of the way of her stories – even the arts of storytelling. She grabs for the easiest, smoothest turn of phrase in every situation, not because she’s a lazy writer but because her readers aren’t loitering around paying attention to her turns of phrase, and she knows it. Those readers want quickly-sketched characters moving through lavishly-detailed worlds having slightly stilted, picturesque problems – all of it delivered as smoothly and comfortably as an ice cream cone. We may never know if Steel is privately tempted to do more, but there can be no denial that she delivers exactly what her readers want.
For such an author, predictability is a staunch ally. Take Happy Birthday: the story opens with Martha Stewart-style gracious living doyenne and successful businesswoman Valerie Wyatt lamenting the fact that it’s her 60th birthday. She’s spent a good deal of money staving off the signs of aging – discrete surgeries, personal trainer, etc. – but it’s been a few years since her last romantic encounter, and as she glumly reflects, “who would want a woman of sixty? Even men in their eighties wanted girls in their twenties …” She visits her friend the (gay, obviously) psychic who predicts she’ll find true love this year, but he predicts that every year. It fails to cheer her up.
A page later, we’re told that retired football superstar Jack Adams is crawling along the floor of his apartment, in agony from a slipped disc that popped while he was having sex with a buxom twenty-something dressed as Catwoman (these days, all of Steel’s main characters are nonchalantly sexualized creatures – the business is treated like hygienic hand-washing, and plots never, ever hinge on it). Before sweet, dim (or perhaps worse than dim – he wonders if he’s having a heart attack), macho Jack can even phone his chiropractor, readers know with complete certainty that he and Valerie are going to meet, fall in love, and provide the happy birthday of the book’s title. It would no more occur to Steel to keep such an outcome cloaked in mystery than it would have occurred to her closest 19th century equivalent, Anthony Trollope. She wants to tell us about it, not taunt us about it. She is, by a wide margin, our most honest working novelist. She doesn’t even understand the deceits writers are supposed to understand.
Valerie and Jack slowly, eagerly show each other their separate worlds, introduce each other to their separate families. The book’s major sub-plot, involving Valerie’s 30-year-old daughter, provides most of the emotional fireworks on display (although Valerie and Jack are by no means geriatric bystanders – they manage to navigate a terrorist attack before the plot has even started picking up speed), but those fireworks are always a secondary concern for Steel, despite her reputation to the contrary. What she mainly wants to do (especially in what by simple dint of numbers surely has to be considered her late period) is assure her readers that no matter how old they are, no matter how beaten up by life they sometimes feel, good things can still happen. And her genius lies in making those good things so open-platform that all of her readers can hope for them. Sometimes – hell, most of the time – this can most readily be accomplished by piling one well-worn cliche on top of another until all hint of individuality is pressed flat like a hyacinth in a hymnal. Just look at the unofficial ‘honeymoon’ Jack and Valerie take in Venice:
The days Jack and Valerie spent in Venice were the best of the trip. The light was beautiful there in May, the weather was perfect, and the food was much too good. Valerie said she’d have to starve when she went home. They took gondola rides and went to churches, kissed under bridges, and wandered everywhere on foot. They went across the lagoon to the Hotel Cipriani for lunch one day, and went to see the glass factory in Murano the day after … They had their last lunch at Harry’s Bar, took a final gondola ride under the Bridge of Sighs, and spent their last night at the Gritti Palace in bed making love, and then walked out on their balcony to look out over Venice in the moonlight.
“Could anything be more perfect?” he asked …
Readers will answer ‘no,’ and they won’t do that because they actually want to string together that same list of the ten most hackneyed tourist things anybody can do in Venice. Rather, they’ll nod in agreement because Steel has presented them with a template for their own hopeful futures. She’s provided the broadest, most serviceable details not because she lacks imagination but because details of any other kind would mar the fantasy, and she knows it.
Happy Birthday has plenty of flaws – as noted, Steel has no actual writing ability beyond a certain intermittent linear competence. Words and phrases recur with the annoying regularity that can only be the product of ill-considered writing, and as in all Steel novels, characters have a disastrous tendency to break into exposition at the least believable moments. But Steel’s innumerable fans won’t care, because here as always their author delivers the goods. A simple, involving plot burbles contentedly, even exuberantly to its twinned climaxes, and those fans keep turning the pages, fascinated to know what happens next. They’ll be pleased with how things go, and Danielle Steel wants them to be pleased.
And in repayment for that smiling effort – who knows? Maybe someday, just once, a thoughtful notice in The Washington Post? Maybe on novel #100.