Nothing annoys me more than walking into a bookstore and seeing Danielle Steel books taking up two thirds of the romance section. You’d think by now my local Barnes and Noble would have figured out that Steel’s books aren’t romances; they’re that blurry, nebulous category more properly referred to as “women’s fiction.” But small wonder that the poor employees of Barnes and Noble can’t figure out what constitutes a romance, when publishers evidently can’t either. The spine of Patricia Kay’s Family Album is clearly marked “contemporary romance.” But it’s not a romance. Rather like Danielle Steel’s books, it’s a family drama which involves a lot of angst but very little romance.
Hannah Turner was raised by an oppressive, fundamentalist minister. Asked to spend her summer days babysitting two little boys, seventeen-year-old Hannah jumped at the chance. Out from under her father’s thumb for the first time in her sheltered existence, Hannah surreptitiously read Kathleen Woodiwiss’ Shanna, and the effect on her youthful hormones was overwhelming. Under the wicked influence of Woodiwiss, she had an affair with the man whose children she was babysitting. Pregnant and unable to confide in either her straitlaced father or the father of her child (who reconciled with his wife), she ran to her Aunt Marcy in Florida, had the child, and gave it up for adoption.
Now Hannah is happily married to rich, handsome Simon Ferris, with a fourteen-year-old daughter named Jenny, and her life is picture perfect. But the son she gave up twenty years before has come to Los Angeles to find her. Will the revelation of her youthful indiscretion destroy her life?
While I was reading Family Album, those comparisons to Danielle Steel continually came to mind. The plot revolves around a classic Steel situation, a beautiful, talented woman with secrets in her past, happily married to a much older, rich man. There’s even a Steel book with the exact same title. Kay writes better than Steel, however, with nary a run-on sentence in sight (my pet peeve with Steel’s books). But although Kay’s style might not be reminiscent of Steel, the feel of the book certainly is.
My biggest issue with this book was the episodic nature of the plot, which reminded me distinctly of, you guessed it, Danielle Steel’s books. The main story involves David, Hannah’s son, who has come to Los Angeles and is trying to figure out the best way to let Hannah know who he is. But there are too many other unrelated plot devices thrown into the book just to create drama. The heroine’s father has a heart attack, necessitating her rushing off to Nebraska. (He’s teetering on the brink of death but recovers very quickly.) Jenny hits her head on a diving board and has to be rescued by David. (She stops breathing but is quickly resuscitated.) It’s a soap opera, and too little of it has much to do with the main plotline.
Since the book is labeled “romance,” one would reasonably expect the plot to revolve around, well, a romance. Hannah’s marriage to Simon does take center stage, but there’s surprisingly little conflict in their relationship. The book begins with them having been happily married for years, and very little happens to change that. Simon was adopted himself, and has a low opinion of women who bear children and then give them up for adoption, yet when he discovers the truth of Hannah’s past, he doesn’t even get annoyed enough to raise his voice or throw things. He’s understandably a bit miffed that Hannah had a son and never bothered to mention that to him, but their happy ending is never really in doubt.
And maybe that’s why Family Album left me cold. The characters don’t seem to have any real depth to them, and their reactions just aren’t believable. Simon is a very nice guy, but so extraordinarily dull that the word “hero” just can’t apply. The man is boring, boring, boring. Yes, in real life boring guys do make the best husbands (and my own husband is living proof of that fact), but this isn’t real life, it’s a novel. We need conflict.
And Hannah is pretty dull herself. She has a career as a painter, but it has little relevance to the plot and is mentioned apparently just to give her something to do during the day (we can’t have a heroine who’s just a housewife, after all). She had a perfectly valid reason for giving her son up for adoption – indeed, in her situation, it seems to have been the only reasonable thing to do. Yet she’s spent twenty years castigating herself for it. When David shows up, she’s deeply concerned that Simon and Jenny are going to be angry with her, even though she had David long before Simon entered the picture. She is so loving and so concerned for her family’s welfare that I wanted to beg her to be selfish for once and just enjoy her reunion with her long-lost son.
Most of the secondary characters are even less interesting. Hannah’s father is the stereotypical strict fundamentalist minister who raised a dysfunctional family, and has a meek, spineless wife. Hannah’s sisters might as well be cardboard cutouts. Simon’s bitchy mom seems promising, and offers the hope of enlivening the story a bit, but she suddenly becomes just as dull as the rest of them, abruptly becoming a reasonable, mature character who counsels her granddaughter to forgive and forget.
In one rather peculiar, jarring scene, we’re asked to feel sympathy for Mark, David’s father, who realizes twenty years later that he “really loved” Hannah. Please. The man took advantage of a naive, sheltered teenager while estranged from his wife and didn’t even have the decency to use a condom. The last thing I feel for the man is sympathy. He’s a predator, pure and simple.
The only characters that really rang true for me were Hannah’s two children, Jenny and David. Jenny is a brilliantly depicted teenager. Every thought she has is entirely believable. From the moment she meets David, she has a terrible crush on him, and when she discovers David is her half-brother her first concern is that everyone is going to laugh at her for having a crush on her brother. If that’s not a typical teenage reaction, I don’t know what is. She’s a sweet girl, but everything in her life, from boys to horses, is a huge drama, and everything is about her. She is the quintessential teenager.
David is an admirable young man. When his adoptive parents died he spent the rest of his childhood being shuttled around the foster care system, yet he is a hard worker and doesn’t gripe about his hard lot in life. It must be admitted that he is mildly resentful of his mom and her family, who are living the rich and comfortable life in Los Angeles while he’s living in one-room apartments, but one can hardly blame him. And his intention in finding his mom is not to ruin her life, but just to be part of a family.
David is not a minor character. In fact, since the book begins and ends with him, it isn’t a big leap to conclude that he is actually the main character. He’s certainly more interesting than either Hannah or Simon. I almost wish he’d gotten his own love story (his own sister having a crush on him presumably doesn’t count). But then, at twenty, he’s pretty young for that. And if Simon and Hannah’s love story had been more interesting, it might have been enough. But unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough to carry a full-length novel.
Overall, Family Album left me indifferent. Perhaps if it hadn’t been labeled “romance” I might have liked it better. But whether we call it a romance or a family drama, it simply failed to involve me enough. Most of the characters were too one-dimensional to care about them, and the plot didn’t provide a clear enough focus for me to be drawn into it. Even the love scenes are reminiscent of Steel – brief, barely descriptive two-paragraph scenes. In fact, the love scenes are pretty much like the rest of the book-adequately written but without any real emotion.