MUSING: Reading a Danielle Steel Novel Nearly Sent Me into a Writing Crisis
Updated: Mar 18, 2020
Back when I was a naïve teenager, I gobbled up Danielle Steel novels like they were fat-free Snackwell cookies (It was the ‘90s). Then, I grew up and shifted to more substantive literature. It’d been at least two decades since I’d read one, and I might have gone the rest of my life without reading another save two coinciding events.
First, I recently trudged through the 1000-plus pages of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House for a book club I’d joined. Desperate for lighter fare, I snagged the $2.99 Bookbub deal for Steel’s recent bestseller, The Mistress.
I figured that, for the price of a slice of pizza, this would give me a break from foggy Victorian England and Dickens’ labyrinth plot and the enormous cast of zanily named characters. Second, I could compare and contrast two beloved authors from two different centuries. Maybe then I could crack the code of a bestseller.
You’ve probably already guessed where this is heading. Danielle Steel is no Charles Dickens. She isn’t even a Jude Deveraux or Nora Roberts. (Those are two romance novelists who can write circles around Steel). The fact this got published — and currently possesses a 4.4-star rating on Amazon — feels like a dire, end-of-days warning about the state of our society.
Reading it nearly sent me into a crisis. Why, exactly, was I trying to write elegant, economical sentences like this — “Existing in the present tense, using the invisible ink of movement, dance was the cruelest of arts.” (The Pas de Deux: A Classical Ballet Romance) — when I could slap together this mess, which isn't even a real sentence!
“When Theo sent him images of his work digitally, and Pasquier called him the next day, and said he’d like to meet with him if he came to Paris, and to bring one or two of his paintings with him, so he could see his brushwork, which was a reasonable request.”
Folks spend their money on and give their time to the latter, but why? Because The Mistress is, objectively, terrible.
Like most Steel novels, this doesn’t feature characters, just objects that represent her favorite fetishes: money, beauty, and luxury. Vladimir, a cold and ruthless Russian oligarch, spoils his mistress, Natasha, with clothes and jewelry. Coming from nothing, she feels grateful to him for her Cinderella-like existence. Then, she meets Theo, the son of a famous artist who wants to make his mark as a painter. Haunted by Natasha’s beauty, he paints his masterpiece — a portrait of her. She and Theo begin a friendship that she keeps hidden from Vladimir until . . .
The lady herself. You can visit her website to read her blog (G-rated pap), see pictures of her favorite pieces of art (she likes hearts, go figure), and see pictures of her in some truly fabulous outfits (she wears a stole well).
You can probably take it from here. Suffice to say this is one of the most frictionless plots I’ve ever read. Any opportunity to produce tension by rubbing two opposing forces together is wasted. When Natasha purchases and decorates an apartment for Vladimir and her — a source of stress for most couples — it involves no bidding wars, no late workmen, and no arguments about sofa colors. When Vladimir kicks Natasha to the curb, he allows her to keep her clothing and purses, thus giving her a safety net. Even when a problem arises (Vladimir’s yacht is too big for certain exotic ports), it’s too ridiculous to take seriously.
The predictability isn’t the real problem, seeing as plenty of books use time-tested tropes and well-worn plots. The way it’s relayed is. The Mistress unfolds in exposition that’s written in the shallowest point-of-view, like a soap opera that takes place in thought bubbles.
“She was excited to go to St. Tropez and Sardinia, and she didn’t mind if the crossing to Sardinia was rough. She was a good sailor, and had been in storms with him before. She never got seasick, and sometimes had better sea legs than the crew.”
St. Tropez, France. In case you're wondering if your yacht would fit.
Even when Steel shifts into showing mode (techniques like dialogue and physical action), it’s not believable. In fact, it’s inadvertently hilarious. Why do Natasha, Vladimir, and Theo — three Europeans — all sound like Kansas newscasters?
“You can shop for a day. I thought we’d go to Sardinia after that. We haven’t been for a while. There’s a mistral coming at the end of the week. We can outrun it before it hits and stay there.”
That’s Vladimir speaking. Do his words sound like those of a Russian criminal to you? Yeah, me neither.
Don’t worry about remembering any details because Steel will tell you them again. And again. And then again. Natasha is described as “a flawless beauty,” “the most beautiful woman,” “a natural beauty,” and “a stunning beauty” and that’s just the first twelve pages! Dozens of more references to Natasha’s good looks plunk through the pages, like an out-of-tune piano sounding the same sour note.
I could go on about the amateurish quality of Steel’s writing: the head-hopping (sometimes in one sentence), the overuse of adverbs (particularly in dialogue), the contrived plot, the utter banality of the whole thing, but that would be to miss the point. Because readers lap this stuff up. Here’s what Ronda B on Goodreads had to say:
Plenty of reviews are in this vein, suggesting that Steel is giving people what they want. Pick it apart all you want; she hasn’t sold 800 million books for no reason. So, instead of cutting it down, I opted to figure out why.
First, when half of the country lives paycheck to paycheck and can’t assemble $400 in the event of an emergency, this is escapist, consumerist fluff at its best. The subtitle should be "People Go Shopping." Natasha buys clothes, an apartment, and furniture while Vladimir buys a second, more luxurious yacht, and, in a fit of pique, masterminds a heist of Theo’s father’s paintings, netting him quite the art collection (none of the art is described in detail, which eliminates any political implications).
Many, many lines are devoted to Birkin bags. After searching for an image of one, Google is torturing me by showing me ads for them because that's happening never.
When Natasha sells her couture clothes after finding herself dumped by Vladimir, the pleasure is in learning exactly how much cash she’ll receive for her belongs — a kind of reverse shopping spree.
Steel describes these blatant displays of acquisition in basic terms, which allows the reader to color in the details with his, her, or their taste.
“For the next two weeks, she never stopped. She bought paintings, furniture, fabrics, two beautiful rugs for the living room, and one for their bedroom. She bought an antique canopied bed that had been enlarged. She bought everything they needed for the kitchen, and hired a Russian maid. And when they went back to London, she wanted to do more shopping there.”
It’s almost required that you, the reader, step into the shoes of Natasha, and concretize what exactly these two beautiful rugs and antique canopied bed look like. I bet yours look different than mine, which allows each reader to personalize the reading experience.
My dream canopy bed. You can pick yours here.
Other, obvious reasons can be identified that have allowed her to be the fourth bestselling author of all time. The endings are happy, the characters are too faintly drawn to elicit any judgment, positive or negative, and the lack of tangible details allows the whole thing to pass like a daydream wrapped in gauze.
That being said, I pinpointed Steel’s secret ingredient, and it has nothing to do with the above.
Are you ready, and are you set? To learn how to write drivel and make millions of dollars and be totally adored by fans?
Steel is a master employer of conjunctions, specifically "and." While reading The Mistress, I was reminded of THIS scene from stoner classic, Dude Where’s My Car. One of the clueless dudes (Ashton Kutcher) orders more Chinese food than he intends as he’s continually prompted, “and then.” Ultimately, he ends up enraged, smashing the drive-through speaker.
Reading Steel is like experiencing an un-ironic and then.
“They had dinner on deck that night, and she could tell that he was pleased with his time away. He was in a festive mood, and they chose a spot for the new painting in their bedroom, and moved a Picasso into the hall.”
“There were several art fairs on at the same time, and he was staying at a small boutique hotel filled with artists and art dealers, and every conversation he heard around him, at the hotel, or on the street, or at the art fair, was about some aspect of art. And he . . .”
These two sentences aren’t the exception; they’re the rule. These "ands" act as a continual rope, stringing you along with the promise of more, more, more thens.
Lest you laugh at my conclusion, let me remind you of another author — maybe the most famous in the canon who has an app named after his inimitable yet often imitated style — who abundantly used and to critical acclaim?
He's so good that even romance novelists emulate him.
I'm the author of The Pas de Deux: A Classical Ballet Romance (“a powerful saga”: Midwest Book Review), The Piece: A Contemporary Ballet Novel (“a compellingly vivid story”: Midwest Book Review), and The Winner: A Ballroom Dance Novel (“one of the best books I've read this year”: Library of Clean Reads).