BOOK REVIEW / Too much sugar in her bowl: Helen Birch on Barbara Taylor Bradford's lastest blockbuster. 'Angel' - Barbara Taylor Bradford: HarperCollins, l4.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
ANGEL, aka Hollywood costume designer Rosalind Madigan, has enough sugar in her bowl to make ordinary mortals nauseous. Beauty, success, talent and riches might be enough to sustain a heroine from the Jackie Collins stable, but Rosalind is also 'kind, considerate and generous to a fault. She never said an unkind word about anyone and was always trying to help those less fortunate than herself.' That nickname is no afterthought.

Her best male friend is Gavin, whose CV reads like the entry 'film star' in a spoof encyclopaedia: born of Italian parents in the Bronx, father dies when young; brought up in loving poverty by a mother who spends hard-earned pennies taking her son to the movies and encouraging his ambitions; takes part-time jobs to finance work in fringe theatre and to pay for acting lessons with Lee Strasberg. Now as big a box office draw as Stallone, Arnie and Costner, with enough clout to produce and nurture his own projects.

The latest of these, like Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, is a personal obsession, an epic about the Earl of Warwick that was shunned by the studios, but that is as certain to leave Gavin dancing with Oscars as Angel is to find its creator rolling in cash.

Since she wrote A Woman of Substance in 1979, Barbara Taylor Bradford has become one of the world's best-selling novelists. Her husband, Robert Bradford, produces all her work for American TV mini-series, thus securing the books a shelf life beyond a few months. And Angel is the first of the three-book deal worth around pounds 17m.

Taylor Bradford fans are mainly women approaching middle age, whose own lot is probably more or less settled and for whom the message relayed via her heroines - struggle pays off in the end, goodness earns love - seems to have particular resonance.

One reason for this may be that like all the best fantasies, the one Taylor Bradford offers her readers has touchstones we can all understand. Although the worlds of fashion, TV, journalism or Hollywood in which her novels are set appear both glamorous and competitive, her heroines and their ambitions are pretty much homespun. Just as Emma Harte, the rags-to-rag trade doyenne of the Woman of Substance trilogy has to fight against the odds to achieve the recognition her talents deserve, so in Angel great emphasis is placed on how hard Rosalind Madigan works. Not for these women the flighty flash and cash of Hollywood Wives or Dynasty; graft is what their lives are all about and if their reward is couture elegance, chauffeurdriven limousines and country mansions instead of Marks & Spencer chic, a Ford Fiesta and terraced house, well, someone has to have those things. As for sex, a Taylor Bradford heroine shuns black lace in favour of peach satin. Discretion, taste and manners are the values that count.

Taylor Bradford draws the details of her fictional milieu from the daily gossip of tabloid newspapers and women's magazines rather than from a specialist knowledge. In this way, she creates for her readers the illusion of familiarity (most of us have a vague recollection of, for example, how Costner struggled to get Dances with Wolves made), while releasing us from the anodyne trappings of our own experience. This illusion - which may be inspired by either a democratic or commercially cynical impulse, depending on how you look at it - also accounts for her apparent need to explain exactly what she means at any given point. This involves specifying a technical term like the process of 'looping' sound on to film and spelling out the meaning of English references such as Bonfire Night or York Minster to minimise the risk of alienating her substantial American readership.

The need for exposition cannot, however, excuse plain bad writing and creaky plotting. It's one thing to try and understand the popularity of novels like these; quite another to read them. Angel is not Taylor Bradford at her best. Rarely does she use one word when three or four will really ram the point home, and treats us to phrases like: 'a picture of such sweep, scope and magnitude' or 'the glitzy, glamorous, bitchy, competitive, cruel world of show business'. Notwithstanding the fact that so much popular fiction doubles as a doorstop, which means readers are expert in negotiating their way around numerous characters and the most tangled relationships, Taylor Bradford subjects us to a recap of who's who and how who is related to whom in nearly every chapter.

This would matter less had Taylor Bradford devised a story with the heart-in-mouth appeal of A Woman of Substance. Instead we meet a group of friends - Rosalind, Gavin, Rosalind's New York cop brother, Kevin, and her best friend and Kevin's lover, Nell, PR to the stars - all of whom love one another madly but have, for realism's sake, a shadow over their lives. The druginduced demise of his teenage love, Sunny, has given Kevin a mission to live 'inside the belly of the beast' and rid the streets of drugs. Gavin has married a woman he did not love because she was pregnant. A disastrous youthful marriage to a French aristocrat prevents Rosalind's cup spilling over, but allows Taylor Bradford to whisk us off to a chateau in the Loire for a spot of high living with characters who seem to have borrowed their dialogue from Peter Mayle.

Rosalind is temporarily relieved of her celibate state by the 'finest bel canto singer of his generation', Johnny Fortune, a hybrid of Johnny Mathis and Barry Manilow, with the dubious connections of Frank Sinatra. Meanwhile, Kevin has gone undercover with the local Mafia, whose godfather is none other than Johnny's father. Having pulled these plot strings tight, Taylor Bradford promptly lets the tension slip through her fingers, robbing us of a juicy moral conflict so that we may watch her little women become good wives.

Taylor Bradford invites her readers to bask in the soft-focus glow of a world emptied of horrors, where everyone is driven by the purest of motives and whose protagonists cannot be blamed for their mistakes. But with evil reduced to a series of walk-on cameos, the goodness she heaps on like icing has no real meaning. In Angel the entrepreneurial Amazons of the Eighties have given way to creative paragons for a new age, whose path to wealth, love and happiness is paved with gold and who are therefore never called upon to be agents of their own destiny. But she seems to have forgotten that without the threat of disruption, the power of the happy ending is much diminished.