The secret of Danielle Steel's appeal: her Cinderella heroines are role models

Family Album, by Danielle Steel. New York: Delacorte. 399 pp. $16.95. Danielle Steel has written 18 books, with 55 million copies in print. Finding a reason for such response is difficult at first glance. ``Family Album'' is the latest title, and, as with her earlier books, it concerns the ultra rich and super lovely told in a narrative style that offers minimum content to exercise a reader's creative energies. In a context of the novel genre, the substance of all Steel's books appears to be but glitter, lacking the creative plotting, originality of style, and ideas that make a good novel. Yet, 55 million is a big figure no matter how fast you say it. Where, then, is the gold in Steel?

More than indulging curiosity about the rich-'n'-famous, the works of Danielle Steel apparently strike some primeval chord, a melody that ``plays our song,'' similar to the strain a fairy tale evokes within a child. Indeed, she incorporates the omniscient narrator as well as the classic story line of a fairy tale.

In this age, however, the tale could not include the traditional lady beside the cinders singing for a prince to rescue her. Today the successful Cinderella sings her password from the ashes in active, not passive voice. This active quality is the necessary added dimension to the lives of Steel's ladies that fits them into modern modes. Her heroine in ``Family Album,'' Faye Thayer, is a prototype of this persona that every woman today is expected to be, a role model for women who ``bring home the bacon and cook it up in the pan.''

The premise for ``Family Album'' appears to be, ``What if Cinderella, her Prince, and their progeny were dropped into Hollywood in the mid-20th century?'' The author then sprinkles in measures of all the complex social problems of the era 1943-1983, smatterings of World War II, McCarthyism, abortion, drugs, Haight-Asbury, homosexuality, Vietnam, etc.

Once a successful academy award-winning actress, Faye finds that five years and five children after marriage she must not only mother her brood but also salvage the family's financial position because her infantile Handsome Prince has frittered away his kingdom on baubles and Dusenbergs. She accomplishes this by returning to the studios as a director.

Like the heroines in earlier Danielle Steel books, Faye Thayer embodies the ``fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation'' which Tolkien describes as necessary constituents of a good fairy tale. Victorious in her new challenge, Faye seems as well to represent an updated, flip side of the old Horatio Alger characters who inspired the pre-Yuppie generation of men in gray flannel suits (whose sisters were still being silver-spoon fed on the old version of Cinderella's tale).

Many women today, especially career-minded individuals, have fit themselves nicely into a new format. No longer the ``working girl,'' they are the executive administrators, the VP's, the account managers. But many another has suddenly awakened in the midst of this era of change to find herself at the mercy of cultural whirlwinds that have uprooted ancient mores and comfortable positions. Her sense of direction assaulted, caught in the turmoil yet isolated from its causes, this woman seeks solutions. And like many people today she looks for material solutions to spiritual problems, to modern fairy tales for her ``fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation.''

Although eventually this reader will deepen and expand her search to find a firmer foundation for her identity, such books as Danielle Steel writes do provide a stopgap: ``If you see the magic in a fairy tale, you can face the future. . . .''

Jaye Wilson's second novel, ``Storm,'' will be published by Ballantine Books.

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