Bittersweet is a middle-aged melodrama that’s about one-third too long. Not that it would have been much better without the additional 100+ pages, but Danielle Steel’s continual repetition of thoughts and actions becomes impossibly frustrating in a book of this length. While the author has moved beyond the twenty-something lovers I remember her writing in decades past, this book seems a self-indulgent exercise. As I read Bittersweet, I kept seeing snippets of People magazine articles and Entertainment Tonight segments about Danielle Steel’s real-life romance with her wealthy, yachting (and soon to be ex) husband flash through my head. This is not an autobiography; readers should not be more reminded of the author and her personal life than the book’s characters when reading it. Now that Steel is apparently dating George Hamilton, will an upcoming book feature a romance with a tanned actor-turned-bon-vivant?
India Taylor is a beautiful 44-year-old mother of four who is also a talented photojournalist. She no longer has a career, however, because her husband is old-fashioned in his needs and wants. Spurred by a series of events, India becomes increasingly disenchanted with her lot in life – why can’t she pursue her art and be a wife and mother? And, how long has it been since her husband has seen her as a woman to love and not just a helpmeet and mother to his children.
As India moves emotionally away from her husband, she moves closer to Paul Ward, the incredibly rich, powerful and handsome older yachtsman she meets through friends. Paul is married to the quicksilver and beautiful authoress, Serena Smith, and though India spends more time with Paul than Serena, she strikes up friendships with both of them.
India and Paul are careful never to take their friendship beyond the platonic level. Then Serena is killed in a violent accident; not long thereafter India’s husband refuses to allow her the freedom to work, seeing her important work as disgusting. They separate. India and Paul become each other’s lifelines on the telephone, offering loving support for one another from long distances. Though India and Paul are clearly soul mates, Paul’s love for Serena will never die – or will it? Only intrepid readers will discover the answer to that.
I say intrepid because, though author Steel sells millions of copies of books, this one, for me, is filled with “who are these people?” characters – everyone is beautiful, rich, and thin, and the lives they lead seem impossible. Not that all that many romance novels feature characters whose lives have resonance with our own, but the best of romance novels have that indefinable something about strong characterization that is missing in Bittersweet.
Speaking of which, this book is labeled “fiction,” not “romance,” which should surprise no one who reads romance. Most genre readers seem to agree that Danielle Steel’s novels are not romances, although they take up valuable shelf space in most romance aisles. Because “fiction” supposedly demands stronger characterization and “better” writing than romance does, Steel’s limitations in her characterizations in Bittersweet are all the worse.
And when it comes to her writing style, Steel’s most flagrant problem is that she repeats feelings over and over, with very little change in the wording. There are pages and pages and pages of India discovering her marriage is not what she thought it was. Then there are pages and pages and pages of India coming to the realization that her husband is not the swell fellow she thought he was. While a little repetition can be effective in the hands of some authors, it is tedious here. If you are in the mood for a truly “bittersweet” read, I’d suggest Anne Rivers Siddons’ Up Island or Low Country instead.