The hot book and the haute restaurant have a similar appeal: They both dish up something you can't get at home and probably would be healthier without, whether it's intrafamily sex or a cream-choked hazelnut dacouoise. Best sellers sling social taboos with the abandon of a mad chef, offering a fairly standard, rich menu, to which readers respond with the same guilty glee ("I shouldn't have this, but . . . ") they exhibit when ordering a gooey dessert.
Joan Juliet Buck's Daughter of the Swan is the literary equivalent of the exactingly decorated miniature pastries that fill the windows of Parisian patisseries--an elegantly appointed little treat that seduces the taste buds but provides little in terms of nourishment. Buck, an American living in Paris, tells the story of Florence Ellis, daughter of a now-gay antiques dealer and devoted niece of the beautiful Julia, who dies under mysterious circumstances. Florence seeks solace in the arms of the even more mysterious Felix--who, as it turns out, has held more than one member of her family in sexual thrall. Florence spends too many years under Felix's spell, and it takes her much longer than it will take the average reader to figure out the soldier's web of relationships she's in. But her journey to enlightenment does take place at all the in-spots on the continent. "Daughter of the Swan" is like Gault-Millau with a plot.
Given the exchange rate for the franc, that's a good deal, so Weidenfeld & Nicolson will print 35,000 initially, spend $50,000-$75,000 on promotion, and import Buck for a Stateside author tour. NAL already has bought paperback rights for $250,000.
Fortunes by Vera Cowie also is set in the world of antiques--in the offices of Despards, a fictional competitor to Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses--and depends on yet another enigmatic sexual dynamo, here named Blaise, to propel the story. But there the similarities end, because Cowie is more your meat-and-potatoes romance writer. Dominique du Vivier and Catriona Despard are stepsisters: Dominique is the wicked one, a nymphomaniac who already possesses the lusty prince; Catriona is the drab Cinderella, only a makeover and some decent lingerie away from stealing her stepsister's husband and claiming their dead father's business as her rightful inheritance.
Dad was an indecisive sort who gave the girls a year after his death to show which of them was the best antiques auctioneer, with the winner to take over Despards. The contest takes them around the world, either in the best clothes or no clothes at all, which is temptation enough for Dutton to print 80,000 copies and spend $50,000 on promotion of this Troll Book Club main selection.
Jayne Loader's Between Pictures could be one of those cult favorites that grows to best-seller status--the elements of commercial fiction are there, but they're all skewed. A lot. Anna Kate, born Katherine Anne Porter O'Shea, is a champagne-soaked, cocaine-dusted confection whose idea of the perfect man is a nebbishy physics professor from suburban Ohio who comes fully equipped with a pinched wife and two high white-bread children. Anna Kate thinks he's going to save her from the madness of being a suddenly successful screenwriter without a follow-up, but life with him turns out to be a pit-stop in purgatory on the way to a brief but convincing sojourn in petty gangster hell.
That Loader manages to come up with transitions between Anna Kate's varied venues is an accomplishment. That she manages to make such unrelentingly grim material funny, even intermittently, is a minor miracle, making "Between Pictures" a nightmare with punch lines. Grove prints 35,000 copies and backs them up with a $35,000 ad-promotion budget, and probably should win the gridlocked cliche award for the jacket copy, which lauds Loader for illuminating "an American heart of darkness as big as all outdoors."
But Anna Kate's "outdoors" stops at midtown Manhattan. If you want to talk about the wide open spaces, and appropriately outsize taboos, try Mark Brewer's Bembezani, the story of a white family in Rhodesia whose ancestral estate is destroyed when the British retreat in the face of the black uprising. Paul Macondray's father, Phillip, is a proponent of multiracial rule in South Rhodesia in the 1950s, but even that moderate stance is considered heretical by the white community. As a matter of principle, Phillip trades his land for land in black-ruled Zambia, causing rifts in his family that do not heal. Paul Macondray's soul becomes something of a battleground--between his idealism and his resentments--as he becomes more caught up in the racial conflict than he meant to be.
Brewer has a subtle sympathy for displaced members of privileged white society and a skepticism about black activists' tactics that may not endear him to an audience with little patience for nuance when it comes to apartheid. Still, Freundlich is betting 25,000 copies and a $30,000 budget on "Bembezani."