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STORYTELLERS: NEW IN JULY : Love, Tears, Kindness and a Romp in a Mine Field : LOVE, SEX & MONEY by Sharleen Cooper Cohen (E.P. Dutton: $19.95; 608 pp.) : TO BE THE BEST by Barbara Taylor Bradford (Doubleday: $19.95; 504 pp.) : THERE'S NO PLACE TO CRY AT THE RITZ by Nancy Winters (E. P. Dutton: $18.95; 256 pp.) : THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS by Mary Mackey (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 585 pp.)

June 19, 1988|KAREN STABINER

Not all writers aspire to be the next Judith Krantz or Danielle Steel, which, when you think about it, is probably for the best. Imagine the conclusions that a literary anthropologist might draw about the U.S.A. in the '80s if their brand of fiction was his main source of information: that there had once been a strange, adolescent 1768843636American girls involving an enforced period of time spent among depraved social savages, after which they became members of a sisterhood who wore clothing with other people's names (always French or Italian) sewn in at the neck--and that male sexual dysfunction had already gone the way of smallpox and TB.

But despite the sometimes skewed point of view, there are plenty of pretenders to the throne--mostly writers who know that authors (not screenwriters, who seem to get paid in inverse proportion to the number of descriptive paragraphs they have to write) make, on an average, less than $10,000 per year. If starvation or a second job doesn't appeal, what's an author to do, but court the couture fiction crowd?

In an effort to break out of the pack, Sharleen Cooper Cohen gets right to the point with her title, Love, Sex & Money, and follows up with an equally straightforward, if sometimes enervating, tale of three women who--don't be shocked--rebound from their various personal tragedies and make it big. Pam, spurned by her wealthy real estate tycoon of a father, stages a year's-long showdown in Manhattan and proves that the ability to close important escrows is, in fact, a dominant genetic trait. Trish also faces an evil male adversary (there's a blockbuster zoning ordinance requiring one of these confrontations every 20 pages), a competitive husband whom she escapes to become the toast of the New York art world. And Hilary is a full-time mom who has a mid-life crisis and ends up an environmental activist.

Cohen loads the book with a lot of high-octane tragedies, things that involve hospitals, painkillers, and not always a happy ending. Her trio endures so much, in fact, that it's difficult not to wish they'd get their acts together a wee bit faster.

Barbara Taylor Bradford's Paula McGill O'Neill has it together from Page 1 of To Be the Best--for the granddaughter of Emma Harte, the protagonist of Bradford's best-selling "A Woman of Substance" and "Hold the Dream," the challenge is to keep it together while navigating a mine field of disgruntled relatives and supposed family friends, all of whom have, or want, a chunk of the Harte department store empire. This is travelogue fiction at its smoothest: With Paula based in London, her dashing husband, Shane, in Paris, a brother in Australia and a plan to expand the stores to the United States, this novel is as much fun as a first-class around-the-world voyage, and, given the exchange rate, a fabulous bargain.

Rather than vie for the crown of fiction queen, Bradford has seen to it that she is her own cottage industry: Like Krantz, she's married to a man who makes her books into television miniseries, which in turn guarantees hefty support from her publisher, like a 250,000-copy first printing.

Nancy Winters' There's No Place to Cry at the Ritz tries to have it both ways--it's the best seller as written by someone who's just finished an undergraduate survey course in F. Scott Fitzgerald--but then, so does her heroine, journalist Nanda Dobson. Nanda, who is married to a drunken artist, is also infatuated with cabaret singer Timothy Shea, who happens to be gay. But nothing stops our heroine--she pursues and/or fantasizes about Shea throughout most of the book, and her husband's nervous breakdown. We may know she hasn't a prayer from the outset, but we get to visit some swanky hotels and hot spots before Nanda attains knowledge, dumps everybody, and moves on. Unfortunately, Winters belongs to the infinitesimal detail school of fiction, whose practitioners believe that the inclusion of enough specifics--not only what kind of sandwich Nanda ate, but whether it was any good--will make up for a paucity of character development and plot.

In The Kindness of Strangers, Mary Mackey's central trio is much more traditional: Three generations of women who live, love and act their way through four decades and two continents, from World War II Europe to a movie set in present-day Mexico. Mackey has done enough research for a graduate thesis on German and French theater, which makes for a strange, and strangely satisfying, hybrid, a rather predictable framework fleshed out with engrossing details.

Stage actress Viola Kessler loses her playwright husband, Joseph, at the hands of a pyromaniacal Nazi, and flees the country to save herself and her daughter, Kathe, who then becomes an actress in New York and begets Mandy, who follows in the family footsteps in Hollywood. The device to reunite grandmother and granddaughter is a little creaky, but after the first ponderous chapter, Mackey's homework pays off: Rarely do these formulaic dramas unfold in front of such artfully designed scenery.

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