Review: 44 Charles Street — Danielle Steel

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To Go: 34

Book List:
61. The Very Thought of You — Rosie Alison
62. Possession — A.S. Byatt
63. Maine — J. Courtney Sullivan
64. Winnie the Pooh — A.A. Milne
65. Brokeback Mountain — Annie Proulx
66. 44 Charles Street — Danielle Steel

The plumbing was prone to leaks, the furniture rescued from garage sales. And every square inch was being devotedly restored to its original splendor — even as a relationship fell to pieces. Now Francesca Thayer, newly separated from her lawyer boyfriend Todd, is desperate. The owner of a struggling art gallery, and suddenly the sole mortgage payer on her Greenwich Village townhouse, Francesca does the math and then the unimaginable. She puts out an advertisement for boarders. Soon her house becomes a whole new world.

First comes Eileen, a fresh, pretty L.A. transplant, now a New York City schoolteacher. Then there’s Chris, a young father struggling with a troubled ex-wife and the challenge of parenting a seven-year-old son who visits every other weekend. The final tenant is Marya, a celebrated cookbook author hoping to start a new chapter in her life after the death of her husband. As Francesca’s art gallery begins to find its footing, and Todd moves on to another woman, she discovers that her accidental tenants have become the most important people in her life.

As the roommates bond, and the house fills with the aroma of Marya’s exquisite cuisine, there are shadows as well as light. Naive Ellen explores the precarious boundaries of online dating with a series of strangers. Chris’s custody fight for his son escalates to devastating levels. Marya faces an unexpected choice that will take her into untested waters. And Francesca herself will contemplate what had seemed impossible: opening her heart once more.

DON’T JUDGE ME! I saw 44 Charles Street probably about a year ago and the description really interested me — I love novels with intertwining stories that centre around one place or connecting theme — so I ended up asking my mother to get it for me for Christmas. Eleven months later, I’m finally getting to read it. And I was quite disappointed.

Though the book is, in theory, a good one to write, with plenty of opportunities to tell a poignant story about family and home, Steel fumbled it. Nay, she butchered it. It was filled with cliches and very simply written — although I suppose that those are two characteristics of most mainstream romance fiction. But what I found most irritating was the flagrant disregard for the “show-don’t-tell” rule. Steel didn’t trust her readers enough to let them draw conclusions based on her characters’ dialogue and interactions with each other — she had to beat them over their heads with characterization and metaphorical comparisons. With Chris’s ex-wife and — spoilers — the death of a key character, Steel drew a connection because of their similar patterns of addiction. Instead of leaving it there, she really explicitly spelled it out — it was a little too cause-and-effect for my taste.

The same thing happened with characterization, which was just brutal. Suggesting that a character possessed a certain trait wasn’t enough — it had to be brought up every single time they entered a scene. I felt like I was reading the same thing over and over and over again. Take the characterization of Thalia, Francesca’s mom, for example. On page 10, in the midst of introducing Thalia, Francesca muses:

“Francesca’s mother wasn’t a practical woman. She had relied on men all her life, and used the alimony and settlements they gave her to support her jet-set lifestyle. She had never made a penny on her own, only by getting married or divorced, which seemed like prostitution to Francesca.” (Steel 10)

On page 51: “Men had always flocked to [Thalia] like bees to honey, and still did, but no one had taken her seriously in a long time. She was a little too fey, just a touch too eccentric, and she looked expensive and spoiled. And referring to her mother as ‘colourful’ had been Francesca’s way of saying that she was a little nuts.”

On page 98: “But more than anything, Thalia seemed foolish to her, and most of what they’d talked about was her desperation about finding a man and getting married again. She had confessed shamelessly that without a husband, she didn’t even feel like a woman. Her entire identity was wrapped up in who she was married to. And without that she felt like no one at all[…]And in Francesca’s opinion, her mother’s obvious obsession with finding another husband had been scaring men away from years.

You get the point. It’s basically the same characterization ad nauseum, and that applies to everyone else in the book. Plus, Steel also has a similar habit of rehashing the character’s specific storyline every time they come up in conversation. Every time Eileen is so much as mentioned in passing, Francesca’s off on a tangent for the next ten paragraphs, soliloquizing about how Eileen is so foolhardy with her online dating. It felt like going around in circles.

A relevant question: aren’t editors supposed to notice problems like these and change them before the book goes to print?

Next book: Not a clue. But you’ll be the first ones to know.

– Kelsey

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