Sunday, December 11, 2011
Review - The Ring by Danielle Steele
Short review: Arianna must survive the horrors of World War II. But its okay, she's got elfin beauty so everyone she meets wants to help her out.
First a suicide
Then a girl survives a war
Full review: I have always been of the opinion that Danielle Steel was an inexplicably popular mediocre romance novelist. So I was asked to read her novel The Ring, because then I would see that her books were actually quite good. Now that I have read the story of Kassandra, Ariana, and Noel, three generations of Germans who live during Hitler's ascent to and fall from power and beyond, I am of the opinion that Danielle Steele is an inexplicably popular mediocre romance novelist.
The novel is told in three broad parts. In the first, set in the 1930s, Kassandra, a wealthy and beautiful German woman married to a much older banker, has an affair with a dashing young author named Dolff. Against the backdrop of Hitler's ascendancy, it is revealed that Dolff is Jewish. Even though Kassandra's improbably tolerant husband knows about her affair, he is sympathetic to Dolff, and advises her to tell him to leave Germany before things get really bad for the Jews. Dolff, of course, won't hear of it, asserting that he won't be driven out of his country by thugs. This ends rather predictably with Dolff getting killed, Kassandra's affair getting exposed by the Nazi's, and her suicide. This part of the story is more or less a paint by the numbers tale of Nazi evil and Jewish persecution. There's nothing wrong with that, but the resolution is pretty much telegraphed from the beginning. The problem with this part of the story, and the problem that runs throughout the rest of the book, is that the central character Kassandra seems to have no personality other than "dumb and incredibly beautiful". She's mostly passive - she falls into an affair with Dolff because he takes her for long walks to break up her dull high-society life. She doesn't have a hand in the raising of her children because she's told not to. She pretty much does nothing on her own for her entire sojourn in the book, and then she dies.
And after Kassandra dies, the story shifts a couple years forward and her daughter Ariana takes center stage. Ariana is much like her mother - almost entirely lacking in personality, but stunningly beautiful and fragile looking in a way that makes people want to take care of her. She seems smarter than her mother, which seems like kind of a low bar, but for much of the book is almost as passive - getting imperiled, getting rescued, having men fall at her feet, going along with doing what she is told to do, and so on. Of course, she and her family are "good" Germans who despise the Nazis, but they passively keep their heads down hoping the regime and the subsequent war will pass over them until their hand is forced by the impending draft of Ariana's younger brother. Ariana's father takes her brother to Switzerland, promising to return to get her and flee with her as well. And predictably, he is unable to, leaving Ariana to face down the Nazi establishment that wants her father's money and her brother's service. And so the story continues in predictable fashion.
But the truly annoying thing about the book is that one gets the sense that were Ariana not pretty and dainty, her life would have turned out much less well. For much of the book she doesn't actually do anything but inspire men to rescue her. Far from being the master of her own destiny, she is simply buffeted along by the winds of fate and occasionally benefits from having a man swoop in to hand her some help and send her on her way. One has to wonder, however, what would have happened to Ariana if she had been an unattractive girl instead. When she is set to be sent off to be a forced concubine for a lecherous Nazi general (and all of the "true" Nazis in the book are greedy, lecherous, and sadistic), a "good" German officer swoops in to save her and take her to live with him, with perfectly honorable intentions. Later, we are off-handedly told that another girl was sent to mollify the jilted general when Ariana became unavailable. So because of Ariana's ethereal beauty, she was saved from being repeatedly raped by a German general, but another girl was not so lucky, and got to live a life of torment because Ariana lucked out. In short, one starts to despise Ariana for her undeserved fortune, and wonder what plucky but unattractive women who might have actually taken some initiative would have done if they hadn't been swept aside to horrible fates in Ariana's pretty but vapid place.
The book really falls apart once the war is over and Ariana makes her way to the United States as a refugee. She is taken in by a Jewish family, who assume that because she is a refugee from Germany, she must be Jewish. Passively, she refuses to correct them, eventually marrying their obviously available son. But one wonders how a girl who seems to have never actually even met a Jew before would be able to impersonate one well enough to fool a Jewish mother. But this is only the first of the implausibilities in the final stages of the book, as serendipitous coincidences pop up left and right. A big confrontation looms, and then it dissipates away. People are reunited in improbable ways. The story gets wrapped up at the end in a big bow. One sort of gets the impression that Mrs. Steele got tired of writing the story and rushed to tie up all the loose ends in the last forty or fifty pages.
In the end, The Ring is a fairly bland and inoffensive book with nothing much to recommend it. With nonentities as heroines, a predictable plot, and cardboard villains, it isn't a bad book, but there's not much that is memorable to it. In short, this book did nothing to change my opinion of Danielle Steel as a writer, or get me to want to read any of her other books.
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