YOU'VE got to hand it to her. Shirley Conran's new book is glib, boring and badly written but destined to become a bestseller. The question is, how come?
As I say, no points for writing. The heroine, a brilliant abstract painter called Plum, has a 'creamy little body' and 'big, hyacinth blue eyes'. Her husband, an art dealer called Breeze, is 'tall, lean, muscular, well- dressed' and has 'clear blue eyes'. Breeze is the masterful type and 'roars' three times during one argument. Naturally, such a couple own a second home: 'South-west France was sunny, charming and old-fashioned; the locally produced food and wine were delicious, the cost of living low.' While there, our heroine meets a man with 'dark-lashed brilliant blue eyes', a 'smile that rendered Plum helpless', 'strong, square jaw' and 'strong, muscular arms'.
The back story is the art world - Plum decides to bust an international fraud operation while painting her way to the Biennale - about which the book is full of dull instruction. A provenance 'is a collection of documents that enables the purchaser of a painting to trace the work back clearly through various sales transactions to that of the original artist'. The Courtauld 'is not only a famous art collection but also a school with an art history department and a famous restoration course'. Tiger Eyes always tells, never shows.
But look past the cliches, the plastic people, the postcard descriptions, this is the novel as Cosmo - hence its success. Though the heroine is 37, she dresses - and diets - like a girl in her early twenties. 'I'll have lemon juice,' she says, wiggling her tiny, unblemished form into a mist-green mini-skirt, lavender tights and purple boots. She has two almost grown-up children, but they are barely present in her consciousness. A far more pressing matter for Cosmo girls is sexual response, at which Plum excels: the night she loses her virginity she 'shrieked with disbelief as she felt her first orgasm ripple through her body'.
There is a lot less sex in Tiger Eyes than in Lace and certainly no experiments with goldfish. This is because, like Cosmo girl in the Nineties, Plum is hungrier for instruction in glossy psychology, Wonderbra feminism and self-improvement, of which there is plenty. There is even an Irma Kurtz-like fount of wisdom in the form of wise Aunt Harriet: 'Have you noticed that some men might pay a woman's credit card bill or buy presents for her - but they never give her cash?' she asks Plum, rhetorically. 'Why not? Because cash is power . . . . And that's why men hang on to their cash.'
Plum is the woman that Cosmo girl wants to become: both ultra-feminine and super-feminist; high-powered yet frequently collapsing into the arms of strong, handsome men; Porsche- driving and black marble bath-owning yet wild and creative and free. She is, of course, an impossible woman - except that she is evidently based on Shirley Conran.
Like Plum, she went to Portsmouth art college and left her two young children with her mother for two years when, post Terence, she was struggling as a single parent. Like Plum, she has had bad luck with men. Like Plum she became rich, glamorous and successful. And like Plum, she recently decided to give away her jewels and her jag and get back to the simple life - the pursuit of happiness. Who, indeed, is that blue-eyed blonde on the cover of the book? Why, it must be SC herself. And this is the final rule of sex 'n' shopping success: always market yourself as your heroine.