Plucking at the heart-strings

VANISHED By Danielle Steel (Bantam, $255) A YOUNG child dies in a freak accident. His distraught mother is pregnant at the time. Her husband is furious at the loss of their child. So he beats her up, which results in the loss of the unborn baby. Is the first death anyone's fault? Whose fault is the second death? Why, both are the woman's fault of course. It stands to reason. Everything is always the woman's fault in romantic novels. In Danielle Steel's world, women are bred to be blamed, and to suffer selflessly. But don't worry; they usually triumph in the end.

The disaster quoted above is only the beginning of the problems of Marielle, heroine of Vanished. The main problem with which she wrestles in these pages is the disappearance of her third child, the first child of her second husband.

Marielle is older at the time these events take place. ''At 30, she was even more beautiful than she had been at 18,'' writes Ms Steel. Quite.

Marielle's new house is broken into, her domestic staff are tied up, and her little boy kidnapped. Whose fault is this? Yes, Marielle's. Her husband blames her. ''His eyes were full of reproach and pain, and the look he gave her cut her to the core. There was no excuse she could give, no explanation. She couldn't even explain it to herself.'' By this stage, the reader is clearly intended to be filled with a wave of sympathy for this poor woman, a victim unfairly blamed for the tragedies that befall her.

But in reality, I suspect many readers will, like me, thump the book and think: ''You pathetic idiot, woman. A performing flea has brains enough to realise none of this is your fault.'' Throughout the book, the writer lays down thick slabs of romance andpathos with a trowel.

Everyone gives the heroine a hard time, except one man, who just happens to be happily married to someone else. This doesn't stop him from getting friendly. ''She looked him in the eye and he leaned toward her and kissed her again. This time it took their breath away, and he wasn't sure he could restrain himself much longer.'' Neither could I, but after pausing for 24 hours, I managed to read on.

When Ms Steel wants to move our sympathies, she does not do it with a gentle stroke of a silk-gloved hand. No, she borrows an earth-mover from the local building site and tries to shift our crumbling sympathies in ten-tonne chunks.

Yet why be so critical of a novelist who has such a fanatical and huge following? This is her 31st best-selling novel (doubt it not, this will sell like hot cakes), so surely she must be doing it right? Ms Steel does a great deal right. She writes smoothly, she paces her books like a master, and she knows how to grab the heart-strings of her target audience like no other. No one can fault her for any of this. But it would be good to see such a talent moved in a literary direction, so that her works would transcend the normal world of romantic bestsellers.

It is interesting to compare this with The Child in Time by Ian McEwan. Although both are about the effects on the parents of a lost child, it is hard to imagine two more different novels.

McEwan captures the feelings of the parents in a frighteningly vivid way. They do not scream and rant. They are numbed by the horrors they think may have befallen their only child.

Danielle Steel's many fans will enjoy this book. Professors of English literature all over the world will ignore it in droves. The accountants at Bantam Press will be tempted to dance in the streets.