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Danielle Steel is an internationally best-selling author of over thirty romance novels. Since publishing her first book in 1973, Steel has acquired an enormous following of loyal, avid readers. In 1986, she was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for having at least one of her books on the New York Times best-seller list for two hundred and twenty-five consecutive weeks. Most of Steel’s novels feature rich, beautiful, and talented women who have to overcome setbacks before realizing their dreams. Many of her heroines face the modern dilemma of choosing between a satisfying career or love and family. Usually, like Steel herself, they succeed in achieving both.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Daughter of Fortune
Steel was born in New York City, the only child of John Schuelein-Steel, a member of Munich’s wealthy Lowenbrau beer family, and Norma Schuelein-Steel, an international beauty from Portugal. Steel’s parents divorced when she was seven or eight years old. Afterward, she was raised by relatives and servants in
Paris and New York. She graduated from the Lycee Francais, a private high school in New York where instruction is conducted in French, when she was not quite fifteen. In 1963, she entered New York’s Parsons School of Design. However, she soon abandoned her dream of becoming ”the new Chanel” when the pressure to succeed caused her to develop a stomach ulcer. She then enrolled at New York University, where she studied until 1967.
When Steel was only eighteen, she married her first husband, a French banker with homes in New York, San Francisco, and Paris. The jet-setting lifestyle he had to offer soon bored her, but it would become a source of inspiration almost two decades later when Steel began to write romance novels. Within a few years, Steel decided— against her husband’s wishes—to find a job. In 1968, she was hired as vice president of public relations and new business for Supergirls, a Manhattan public relations and advertising agency. A few years later, the five-woman firm began to falter, and Steel began looking to the future.
A New Career
About the time Steel began looking for a new occupation, one of her clients, then the editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, suggested she try writing. Steel took her up on the idea, isolated herself at her home in San Francisco for several months, and produced her first book, Going Home. Published by Dell paperbacks in 1973, the novel had moderate sales.
Around the same time, Steel’s marriage broke up. She soon turned to writing in earnest, composing five more novels that were rejected before Passion’s Promise was published by Dell in 1977. During these years, she also wrote advertising copy as well as poems about love and motherhood that appeared in women’s magazines. Some ofthese poems were included in the later abridged edition of her only volume of poetry, Love Poems: Danielle Steel (1981).
After Passion’s Promise, Dell published three more of Steel’s romances: The Promise (1978), a novelization of a screenplay by Garry Michael White, Now and Forever (1978), which was adapted for a film released in 1983, and Season of Passion (1979). Sales of The Promise, Steel’s first big success, reachedtwomillioncopiesin1979, and in the same year, she signed a six-figure contract with Dell.
Balancing Work and Family
Steel set a grueling pace for herself, composing two to three novels a year, and in the early 1980s, several more best-selling paperbacks appeared. Despite such a full schedule, however, Steel has always tailored her work habits to meet family considerations. In 1981, she married John Traina, a shipping executive who, like herself, had two children. The couple had five children together. To spend time with her family and help protect them from the chaos of fame, Steel shies away from the limelight, refusing to do promotional tours and living a relatively quiet life. She works in concentrated marathon sessions, up to eighteen hours a day, which affords her blocks of time that she can devote to her large family.
Today there are more than 570 million copies of her books in print in forty-seven countries and twenty-eight languages. She has written more than seventy best-selling novels, including twenty-one that have been adapted for television. Since 1989, she has produced a number of books for children, including the ”Max and Martha” series and the ”Freddie” series. Despite her work ethic and tremendous success, Steel continues to maintain a balance between work and family, dividing her time between San Francisco and Paris, France.
Works in Literary Context
Steel’s romances feature both contemporary and historical settings, and their exotic and exciting locales offer readers fast-paced escape from the routine of daily life. They typically focus on a glamorous, well-to-do heroine who proves that women can ”have it all”—love, family, and career. However, Steel’s characters are beset by obstacles on their road to fulfillment; often they are confronted with the task of rebuilding their life after an emotionally crippling tragedy. Sometimes Steel’s heroines have one or more unlucky romances before they find lasting love, but all their relationships with men lead them to increased self-awareness, which, in many cases, helps them to establish successful careers.
The romance novel comes from a tradition of writing that stretches back several centuries. The word ‘romance’ comes from the Old French words romaunt and roman, which mean ”courtly romance in verse” or ”a popular book.” Primarily written for entertainment, a romance novel usually includes elements of fantasy, such as exotic locations, wild adventures, attractive characters, and the life of luxury.
Although Steel has written in other genres, such as poetry and children’s books, she is primarily known as a romance writer, and the majority of her books follow the general definition of the genre. In a typical Steel novel, the story is dominated by the presence of a single character, usually a rich and glamorous heroine who has everything but still feels unfulfilled. In contrast to some romance novels, however, her protagonists’ journeys usually do not end in love; love is rather the path they take to reach a better understanding of themselves. The outcome in most of Steel’s stories is the emergence of a more resolute and strengthened being.
Works in Critical Context
While Steel can lay claim to one of the largest readerships in popular fiction, she is anything but a favorite among critics. Even when reviewers acknowledge that Steel is a commercial writer who does not pretend to write serious literature, they seem compelled to point out what they see as major weaknesses in her novels: bad writing, shallow characterization, preposterous plot twists, unconvincing dialogue, and rigid adherence to the ”poor little rich girl” formula. Her novels are also faulted as being unrealistic because they focus on the lives of the wealthy and privileged.
Critics reserve their harshest comments for Steel’s prose style, which is generally considered to be sloppy and careless. A number of critics have expressed amazement that Steel’s books do not undergo more extensive editing, and some have appeared to take delight in pointing out her run-on sentences, non sequiturs, and frequent repetition of certain words and phrases. In a review of Daddy, for example, Edna Stumpf remarks:
Ms. Steel plays with the themes of love and work like a child with a Barbie doll. She strips a life down, only to dress it up in billows of her famous free-associative prose, as scattered with commas as a Bob Mackie gown is with bugle beads.
Nevertheless, while some critics might prefer to dismiss Steel without comment, her enormous popularity makes her impossible to ignore. Beginning with her third hardcover, Crossings (1982), all of Steel’s novels have received coverage in the New York Times Book Review. Despite their low appraisals of Steel’s talents as a writer, critics concede that her tear-jerking tragedies and happy endings meet some need in her millions of readers, be it a desire for satisfying diversion or for emotional catharsis.
- Cuddon, J. A., ed. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Third Ed. New York: Penguin, 1992.
- Bane, Vicki L., and Lorenzo Benet. The Lives of Danielle Steel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
- Contemporary Popular Writers. Farmington Hills, Mich.: St. James Press, 1997.
- ”About Danielle.” Danielle Steel: The Official Website. Accessed November 17, 2008, from http://www. randomhouse.com/features/steel/meet_about. html. Last updated in 2008.
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