Jeffrey Archer is an easy target. He’s a best-selling author that a lot of people think is a dreadful writer. So, given that I read in order to improve my writing skills, it seems to make sense that I should read some of those novels and authors that are widely considered to be bad. I can see why they are bad and learn from that. In some cases, they actually aren’t bad, they’re just popular and successful.
In the case of The Prodigal Daughter by Jeffrey Archer, it was bad. It was bad enough to make me angry. It spans about sixty years and is the story of a woman who inherits a massive hotel chain and then becomes president of the USA (whoops, spoilers).
Archer starts with her birth, then shows selected highlights from her childhood, educational career, she runs away to marry the son of her father’s sworn enemy and builds up her own really successful chain of high-end designer clothes stores, her father dies and she inherits his hotel chain, she runs that for a while until she gets bored and then goes into politics.
For the first two thirds of the book my problem was the style of telling the story. Given that there is so much time to cover there has to be a lot of narrative, interspersed with scenes of pivotal events. The narrative is often clumsy and expository. There’s an awful lot of telling and it’s not handled well. The scenes don’t really show the protagonist’s character (which is what they are meant to do) rather Archer tells us and doesn’t match his action with what he’s trying to get across. The dialogue is clunky. The protagonist is not very likable, mainly because she’s perfect and everything just falls into her lap. She has a couple of ‘set-backs’ but they’re not real reversals or challenges, just opportunities for Archer to show that she’s even more perfect than he’d already told us.
I had mixed reactions to the last part of the book. To start with, I felt more positive about it. This is the part of the book where she’s entered politics and is trying to get a seat in Congress, then campaigns for the Senate and then to be the Democratic party nomination for President. It also covers her transformation from dove to hawk which is irritating and feels like polemic. However, it is a detailed and interesting look at the American electoral process and is more action-orientated than much of the rest of the book. There are moments of tension, even though you know the protagonist is going to win everything eventually because she always does. Then as she campaigns for the Democratic Party nomination, she gets well and truly screwed over by her opponent. It’s probably the best bit of the book. She becomes the Vice-President, with a promise that he will step down after one term and support her. Once he has the presidency he sidelines her in favour of his former running mate, now Secretary of State. Then there is a nuclear missile crisis. The President is visiting his mistress and is uncontactable and the Secretary of State crumbles under the pressure. Our protagonist saves the day and is a big hero. Then the President announces he is stepping down and publicly gives his support to the Secretary of State.
That’s not quite the end and I wouldn’t normally describe the plot in such detail, but it brings me to the point that offended me most about this book. At this point, I thought, wow, she’s really going to have to fight for this, that’ll be good. But wait, there’s only a few pages left. What’s going to happen? What happens is a deus ex machina. The President dies of a heart attack and our protagonist automatically becomes President. The End. What, Archer, you couldn’t be bothered to write any more? You’d made your word count so you decided just to leave it there? Rubbish.
This, I think, is a perfect example of a writing breaking their promise to a reader. Not only was the book badly written and quite boring for most of it, but at the end, Archer cheats. He cheats the reader and he cheats his main character. Avoid like the plague. And I still don’t understand how he’s managed to sell so many books.