Friday, June 18, 2004


Danielle Steel

DANIELLE STEEL'S Zoya looks like a big, sprawling saga of a novel, imbued with latent delights and gaily wrapped in a warm invitation to open and explore its enticing contents. And as we very well know, Steel never fails to deliver the kind of yarns that keep you turning the pages at an unflagging pace, the kind you can spend the weekend holed up with and put down feeling as though you have woken up from a deep and wonderful spell. From the cathedrals, domes, spires and ancient elegance of an Imperial Russia plunged into bloody revolution to the graceful splendour and swirling artistic excitement and bustle of Paris in the 1920s and ultimately to the cut-and-thrust world of corporate New York, Steel has managed to weave a tapestry of tragedy, hardship and triumph, of love and loss, and of searching and fulfilment without the obfuscating irrelevancies and loose ends that seem to plague novels of such genre.

Zoya is a sweeping saga of the crumbling or moribund glamour of the Russian aristocracy. Countess Zoya Ossupov, the fiery protagonist of the saga, was brought up in the opulence and extravagance of a St. Petersburg palace, a charmed and wondrous world that existed nowhere else, the vanishing world of Tsarist Russia. Hers was a magical life of palaces and balls, of men in brightly hued uniforms and beautiful women apparelled in elegant gowns and bedecked with diamond necklaces. But dark clouds are gathering in the horizon and as the Revolution engulfs Russia and all that it stands for, Zoya's whole family and those whom she holds dear are mercilessly massacred in the ensuing turmoil.

Leaving home and fortune behind, Zoya manages to escape to Paris with her aged, but spunky grandmother, the Countess Evgenia Ossupov, with whatever jewels they could salvage sewn into the linings of their clothes. Amidst the chaos and turbulence of a nation torn asunder, Zoya's fairytale world, like sandcastles in the air, crumbles to smithereens.

Paris was a whole new experience for Zoya, filled with new principles, new responsibilities and new people. It was a constant struggle for survival and basic necessities were in dire scarcity. Under the shadow of the Great War and in time, Zoya falls passionately and fatefully in love and moves to a more affluent lifestyle in New York with the American captain, Clayton Andrews. However, her world comes crashing down again without warning during the Great Depression when Clayton commits suicide, leaving her with debts to settle and two children to raise. The Second World War looms ominously ahead, bringing with it more violent upheavals. The rising tides of war in Europe ebbs and flows as people and relationships are forced apart and flung together. Thus presented, Zoya sounds like a melodramatic parable. Yet, despite the heaviness of style, it is skilfully narrated. Steel is adept at catching a historical mood and at describing the complex interrelationships between ordinary people thrown together by the winds of change in a world in chaos and turmoil.

Zoya is a story of hope and restored faith, a testament to the resilient and triumphant human spirit and to the restorative powers of love and that coming to terms with one's past, one's life and one's relationships is always a painful process. The path to glory and bliss is not one strewn with primroses but also with trials and tribulations. You will truly be enamoured by the subtly drawn, indomitable character of Zoya, one of Steel's more compelling female characters yet, an enchanting and audacious redhead whose eyes dance with emerald fire as you keep up with her fluctuating fortunes and battle for survival from the majesty and decadence of St. Petersburg to New York.

Despite its timeworn tale and the fact that it hardly breaks any new ground in literary wizardry, Zoya is a pretty engrossing potboiler and for this it owes to its narrative consistency, which is well-handled and tempered with restraint such that the incessant flow of events is kept in clear perspective till the very end. Much of the fascination with Zoya can be traced to its effective intermingling of high romance with undeniably well-drawn characters that linger in one's memory long after putting the novel down, well-woven descriptive passages, poignant moments and a richly-detailed backdrop of varying moods and ambience. The spirit and soul of the eternal and timeless city of Paris has been captured in a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours.

If you have enjoyed Steel's previous novels, you will definitely derive many hours of pleasure from digesting Zoya too. After all has been said, one is still inclined to regard the novel as a rather faithful though constipated version of its pulp.

You somehow know what to expect from a Danielle Steel novel. Yes, by reprising the tried-and-tested formulas that had served her well through the years: flawed characters, tangled lives and redemption. Those with an avaricious appetite for escapist fiction will find her book an interesting and compelling read. Somehow, by working within the conventions of her genre, her novel works, because there is something comfortingly familiar about each new Steel novel in that we know what we are going to get. Assuming no literary pretensions, she entertains us the best way she knows. And it all somehow makes sense.


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