There is a select handful of writers whose reputation precedes them, and whose cultural relevance transcends the world of books. Danielle Steel, grande dame of romantic suspense and author of more than 190 books since 1973 and counting, is among them.
“Iconic is probably the first word [I’d associate with her],” says Laura Kendall, owner of Second Flight Books in Indiana and a BookTok content creator. Working in stores that sell used books, Kendall finds herself handling Danielle Steel titles quite frequently, fielding customer questions about which order the books go in (doesn’t matter) and other things she’s written. (A lot. In 2022 alone, she’s published seven books.)
“I have ended up on the Danielle Steel Wikipedia multiple times,” explains Kendall. “And eventually I end up going down the rabbit hole. She’s just such an interesting woman!”
Interesting, in fact, feels like an understatement. Steel, who has been married five times and is a mother to nine children, has had a life almost worthy of her own page-turning fiction: Her tremendous work ethic, juggling multiple books at once, means she can work 22 hours a day, hunched over her 1946 Olympia typewriter. Despite her wildly successful literary career, she initially planned to become a nun, but turned to writing after her separation from a wealthy French banker. (Around this time she moved to San Francisco, where she lived in a commune of street musicians.)
Kendall’s favourite tidbit, though? “The most fascinating fact to me is that she met one of her husbands when she went to a prison to interview someone else who was incarcerated,” she says, referring to Steel’s second marriage – in the prison canteen, no less – to convicted bank robber Danny Zugelder, a tempestuous time that later inspired her work. “I think she has this very high-class persona, so it sort of contradicts the image she shows the world a bit.”
Steel’s readership tends to skew older, and while she still consistently hits the bestseller lists, her work has fallen slightly out-of-fashion with a younger generation of romance reader, who might associate her books with something their mother or grandmother would read, or with mistily remembered displays of her paperbacks in pharmacies in the nineties and well-thumbed plastic-covered copies in the public library’s discard bins alongside Nora Roberts and Maeve Binchy.
That’s not to say Steel couldn’t be poised for a renaissance among millennial and Gen Z readers, says Jenny Pool, owner of Happily Ever After Books, an online retailer specializing in romance novels. For starters, they don’t know what they’re missing out on.
“It’s a generational thing, but the generation that does love Danielle Steel loves her so much. She has such an enduring fanbase,” says Pool, who first came to romance filching “Harlequin Presents” from her grandmother, and read her first Danielle Steel as a tween.
“There so much about romance that’s steeped in misogyny and the patriarchy,” says Pool of the stigma – fading now, but still a thing – long associated with reading the genre. “Danielle Steel figured out how to write these great romance novels, telling compelling stories about women’s journeys, and she did it under-the-radar,” she continues. “She sits outside of the romance genre, and she was able to carve this spot for herself in publishing that is so enduring.”
Put another way: Danielle Steel managed to back up all the elements of a traditional romance novel (which you’d never be seen dead reading!) in the trappings of something you’d happily discuss at book club. (Exhibit A? Her covers, which eschewed the then-typical eight-packed hunk clutching a heaving-bosomed-maiden for a simple, clean look that focused on the title in distinctive serif font.)
Thinking back to that Danielle Steel title she read at 14, jumbled in with her memories of reading Joanna Lindsay and the Harlequins, “it was the first time I had read a book where the whole story ended with the female character being happy,” says Pool. “I hadn’t even gotten that in the books I was supposed to be reading as a teenager.” Little Women, for example, left her “desperate” for Jo and Laurie to end up together. “It was my very first intro to a type of literature that would give me satisfaction in the end.”
If you haven’t read a Danielle Steel, they’re not light, frothy romcoms. Summer’s End, one of her early hits, is about an aristocratic woman who has an affair. Zoya is a sweeping historical novel about a Russian noblewoman (sensing a theme here?) rebuilding her life time after time. Accidental Heroes is a heart-pounding thriller about two government agents trying to keep a doomed plane from being targeted by the enemy. If you cross the pathos and going-through-the-emotional-ringer of a Jodi Picoult and the high-stakes suspense of a Mary Higgins Clark, you’re in the right ballpark.
Compared with the popular romance titles of today, which tend to be funnier, and less dramatically plotted, Danielle Steel trades in emotion and drama, with a thread of romance running through it. While it’s not the sensibility du jour, Pool thinks there’s about to be a sea change.
“There’s this tiny shift of books that are a bit more heavy, and the stakes of the relationship are higher, and the tension is higher,” says Pool, nodding to recent releases like The Dead Romantics by Ashley Poston and How To Fake It In Hollywood by Ava Wilder. “I find it refreshing in a way, because while I love a romcom like nobody’s business, I do like to cry when I read a book.”
As those younger readers get older, and we move out of the pandemic-induced escapist reading of the past few years, Pool predicts that we’re going to see a hankering for greater emotional heft in our romances, which explore weightier topics – marriage breakdown, addiction – while still delivering the obligatory happy ending.
“And I think Danielle Steel paved the way for that,” says Pool. “And now this other side of romance is maybe catching on.”
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