by Danielle Steel (Delacorte: $16.95; 399 pp.)
Danielle Steel is a publishing phenomenon. She might not be so famous as the late Jacqueline Susann, but she sells more books. According to Publisher's Weekly, in 1983 and 1984 she sold more than 13 million mass-market paperbacks. And this number does not include the readers she has reached via hardcover, trade paperback, book clubs, serializations and foreign translations.
"Family Album" is the first of Steel's novels that I have read, and I kept longing to be swept away in the same manner as her legions of fans. Unfortunately, every few minutes, an inaccuracy would jolt me back to the real world. I knew too much about her setting, the movie business and Los Angeles.
The pivotal point of the novel comes in the early '50s when the heroine, Faye Price, an erstwhile screen actress, makes a then near-impossible step for a woman and becomes a director. She is hired as an assistant director by Dore Schary, the real-life head of MGM, who tells this novice that her task is to fill in when the director succumbs to the bottle. This is rather like asking an orderly to step in for a neurosurgeon with shaky hands. As Schary and everyone else in the industry will know, the director's task is creative, while the assistant director handles the pesky business details.
Whatever the inaccuracies, however, "Family Album" does tell a story that draws the reader along. Faye Price is not a director when we meet her--merely a star. But she forsakes stardom to marry Ward Thayer, a playboy shipping heir. Ward buys her a palatial Beverly Hills estate, then proceeds to shower her with so many pieces of major jewelry that she has difficulty storing them. As their five children are born, he indulges them too--with luxury items that includes a full-size carrousel.
Understandably, Ward's fortune is dissipated within a few years. He is incapable of working--and Steel manages to make this inability not only believable, but poignant.
The Thayer family is reduced to living in--horrors!--Monterey Park with--worse horrors!--only one servant. It is at this point of East Side desperation that Faye secures her improbable job as an assistant director, traversing the path of sorrows to Culver City daily by bus. (Even though Los Angeles is Wheels City, nobody in this novel ever considers buying, say, a secondhand Ford. For the Thayers, it's either a limo or the RTD.)
Through the ensuing decades of success and Oscars, fair Faye remains faithful to wandering Ward. The Thayer children get into heavy drugs, homosexuality, Vietnam, but Faye attempts to protect and succor them. She cares about her children as she cares about her husband. And here, it seems to me, is the key to Steel's success: She cares about that family too. The Thayers come from glamorous backgrounds, true, but are not exempt from problems, problems and more problems. What makes them sympathetic is that through all these travails, love rules them. Critics might not consider sympathy an ingredient of literature, but the rest of us want our friends to be warm and caring. And besides, "Family Album" is not literature and makes no pretense to be. It is diversion, the perfect fix for the millions of Steel fans who will surely curl up with this novel beside a big bowl of buttered popcorn and have a super-fantastic evening suffering along with the rich and famous.