I took English Literature for my ‘A’ Levels and I’m embarrassed to admit that despite being an avid reader and already a professional writer (I had a few art school caliber scripts, a magazine article and some copywriting for which I’d been, amazingly, financially compensated), I barely passed the subject. It was not that I was not any good at it. Actually, I managed to pick up quite a few good tricks to dissecting, analyzing and criticizing the blood, sweat and ink of another. To redeem myself, I can only cry that I had really slow penmanship whereas the Cambridge University Syndicate of GCSE has a warped sense of accomplishment when marking exam papers – quality counts for nothing if you can’t back it up with plenty of word counts. And I have this teensy-weensy problem with editing and reediting my work and time management thereof. As you can see, I have some unresolved angst there, for which I cannot even completely blame them.
In any case, one of the important lessons I learnt from my various literature professors was distinguishing recurring themes – how tiny details in the descriptions, narratives and dialogues can link to a central theme – or sometimes more than one central theme – and present the bigger picture. These little details that reinstate the theme would be subtle and sublime and sophisticated. Often I would miss them during the first reading (for which I am thankful because looking for them can ruin the basic purpose of reading literature – entertainment). Often I would find them exhausting to memorize to refer to later during exams. Often I would be delighted by their discoveries and intricacies. Often I would see them where they did not really exist! This was not the case with 44 Charles Street.
For all the subtlety of mannerism that the central character of this novel, Francesca Thayer, enjoyed in others, subtlety is not what Steel dealt with while beating the central concerns of the character in the head. For example, I had no problem understanding that it was an important aspect and setback in Francesca’s life that her mother was obsessed with getting married and that this played a significant role in Francesca’s evasion to matrimony – because this very fact was repeated throughout the book and not in the subtext alone but with explicit narratives and often dialogues. I suppose it helped set the mood but I found it exhausting to have to read about so many times. Then again, as far as getting the big picture and coming to a full circle, Francesca does end up committed to a man by the end of the novel despite her aversion to marriage being the cause of her breakup with her longtime boyfriend in its opening chapter.
Steel follows all the standard regulations of writing a fully robust piece of literature – standards that make it great literature. And what is great for me is that this novel also follows the standards of my favorite genre – women’s literature. The novel begins with emotional and financial crises of the central character, which is a woman, and follows through a series of upheavals and resolutions and further traumas, some of which are elemental and many of which are social, that help reshape her perception about human relationships. Through conflicts and resolutions, Francesca is able to open up herself to the idea of welcoming others into her life despite previous prejudices and fill in the biggest void that she had been harboring since childhood – to find a love that fit her mentality and a family where she may belong.
But really, take it from someone for whom English is officially a “second language” (because of my place of birth), that this book is splendid for someone who is just beginning to grasp the nuances of the language. This attribute of the novel was slowly creeping into my subconscious as I progressed through the book but really hit me in this particular scene [here is where I’ll do a bit of that referencing I learnt during ‘A’ Levels] where Francesca and her love interest (I don’t want to give away the story for anyone who hasn’t read it) is about to go out on their first date:
‘So what did you tell Marya and Charles-Edouard?’ [her love interest] repeated the question. She hadn’t answered.
‘I told them you hate their food and wanted to go out for a decent dinner.’ With two of the most famous chefs in the world cooking daily meals for them, it was admittedly hard to justify going out. But this was different.
‘Very amusing.’ He knew she hadn’t really said that.
‘I told Marya you invited me to dinner.’
A person who communicated in the English language on a regular basis would be able to pick up the sarcasm in Francesca’s tone of dialogue without Steel having to spell it out that ‘He knew she hadn’t really said that’ whereas a novice in the English novel readership wouldn’t. So this book really is a spell-everything-out kind of book, which would be understandable if Steel was concerned about meeting the reading capacity of her readers worldwide. But this novel is riddled with such scenes or narratives. And unfortunately, this sometimes killed the mood for me just as it did with Steel’s habitual repetitions of explicit thematic statements. I was really beginning to enjoy the development of Francesca’s romantic liaison and the humorous rapport she was building with her love interest, but having to read through all of that explanation in the middle of potentially witty dialogue was sheer teeth-grinder.
As you may notice, I have really mixed opinion of this novel. I really enjoyed it. I thought it was very well conceptualized the way the characters developed and the story developed, how it all coordinated to reach a sensible full-bodied conclusion, how the scenes were all plausible and how I could connect that every scene in this novel may actually happen in real life. As a chick lit lover and writer who constantly has to fight the sarcasm and skepticism of readers who find romance novels and women’s literatures one-tracked and “easy on the intellect”, I think having this book on our corner of the library is a big gold star for us. But in the same tone one of my robust heroes would say, with frustration but endearment, “Hell, woman! I get what you mean. Enough with the communication.”
But what do I know? And I do not say this with sarcasm. Danielle Steel is an author who is to be rightfully revered for having written over 100 novels, of which a quarter have been filmed, whereas I am still struggling to complete my first and second at the same time and am publishing one online on my blog so that readers may get used to reading my work for free and publishers take notice of me. She is the 4th bestselling author of all time and current bestselling author alive. Bless her! And I hope one day I would be as conscientious an author as her.
My point is, those of you who haven’t read this book yet, please do – it’s good. Even if it drags through sometimes, you can skip a couple of paragraphs here and there. For those of you who have read it, I will welcome your feedback on it as well as on what I have written about it here.